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Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear the Musical!

Book and Lyrics by Andy Stanton, Music by Jim Fortune
Dorfman Theatre (National Theatre)
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One of the main purposes of a National Theatre is to introduce the medium to new audiences. With scope to please anyone from 7 to 100, this summer holiday musical offering should do exactly that.

The Dorfman has been reconfigured by designer Georgia Lowe as a large thrust, allowing audience members to get up close to a group of wacky characters engaged on an exciting adventure and feel a real sense of involvement.

The two-hour-long show opens in the town of La Monic Bibbe, where every resident is almost worryingly happy, to the extent that they sing about it.

It is only outsiders such as Steve Furst’s perennially angry Mr Gum and his far from bright sidekick Billy, played by Helena Lymbery, who seek to rock the boat, sometimes literally.

The drama begins when Keziah Joseph as nine-year-old Polly, literally bouncing with joy, finds an unlikely friend in a skeletal bear that might well have a distant relationship with War Horse. She soon names the ailing animal, given life by versatile actress Kate Malyon, Padlock.

In an attempt to make a success of an otherwise completely unfulfilled life, Mr Gum kidnaps Padlock, with the intention of turning him into a lucrative performing act.

A rollercoaster ride ensues featuring many thrills and spills, as the bad guys threaten to make life difficult for our plucky little heroine and her ursine friend.

Along the way, a series of allies including a musical ship’s crew, a talking gingerbread headmaster, other animals and a couple of eccentrics portrayed by Garry Wilmot and Richard Cant all help out whenever the day needs saving.

The story has its slow moments but generally amuses, holding the attention of the smallest members of the audience throughout.

Over and above the acting and a series of songs utilising wide-ranging styles, the pick of which is a rap number, the big attractions of Amy Hodge’s production tend to come either from inventive moments of great wit or some highly imaginative and colourful images.

A series of animal puppets will inevitably catch the eye, while barely seaworthy ships and an umbrella jungle, not to mention an unexpectedly humanised dancing food quartet including a pizza and sushi roll, will keep the little ones entranced.

What they may not spot are the underlying subtleties that should be appreciated by their older companions; the chief of these lies in the thrust of a morality tale that spreads a message of goodwill to all men / women / boys / girls.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher