The Emperor’s New Clothes

Devised by Mark Calvert, Hannah Goudie-Hunter, Laura Lindow and Bob Nicholson, written by Laura Lindow, based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen
Kitchen Zoo and Northern Stage, video by Meerkat Films

Bob Nicolson, Jeremy Bradfield, Simmie Kaur and Hannah Goudie-Hunter Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Bob Nicolson, Jeremy Bradfield and Hannah Goudie-Hunter Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Simmie Kaur with Bob Nicholson, Mouse and Hannah Goudie-Hunter in shadow Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Simmie Kaur, Jeremy Bradfield, Hannah Goudie-Hunter and Bob Nicholson Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

For many years, the team of writer Susan Mulholland and director Mark Calvert created the Northern Stage Christmas show for the under-6s, shows which were not just excellent children’s theatre but simply excellent theatre. For me they were the highlight of Christmas theatre in the North East.

Their last show was The Christmas Grump in 2014, for in the following year Calvert was moved “upstairs” (both in terms of where the plays were performed and because it was the Stage 1 show for all the family) where he directed James and the Giant Peach, which, although it was on a comparatively huge scale, had all the fun and delight of his under-6 shows.

They, unfortunately, never quite found their feet until, in 2018, Northern Stage invited children’s theatre company Kitchen Zoo (Hannah Goudie-Hunter and Bob Nicholson) to produce the show for the under-6s, The Three Bears at Christmas. A true return to the glory days and they were back the following year with Wolf! which worked equally well.

In 2020, they were due to produce with The Hey Diddle Diddle Christmas Spectacular in Stage 2 whilst Calvert would direct The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, written by Laura Lindow, in Stage 1. But COVID struck and the two companies were merged to create a filmed version (shot by Meerkat Films) of The Emperor’s New Clothes, devised by the Mark Calvert and the company and scripted by Laura Lindow, with music by Jeremy Bradfield, aimed at the whole family.

It’s a film of a play, except that the play is on an old-fashioned music hall stage, complete with scalloped footlight covers along the front, and it owes as much to early films—particularly Charlie Chaplin and black and white musicals of the '20s and '30s—as it does to any stage play.

There’s slapstick, puppets, shadow-play, song and dance pastiches and poo jokes. It’s an unwritten rule of Christmas theatre for little ‘uns that there must be some poo jokes, but here they’re much more 'subtle' (note the subtlety there!). Playing on such dog crosses as cockapoos, labradoodles and so on, here we have a mixture of poodle and Rottweiler, a rottie poo!

(And this royal rottie poo—no, I’m not going to go into all this; you’ll have to see the show—proved to be a good judge of character!)

It’s all about two Chancers—Magus Scarper (Hannah Goudie-Hunter) and Broderick Chase (Bob Nicholson)—who find themselves, while escaping from a previous scam (which involved yum-yums—these are not major desperadoes!), in the kingdom of King Shirley XII (Jeremy Bradfield)—who is very, very unhappy because, in spite of having an extensive wardrobe, he has nothing to wear—and his First Minister (Simmie Kaur).

The story is well-known (no need to repeat it here) and the only other character is the child whose innocence exposes just what the King is(n’t) wearing. This is Mouse, a young girl who also happens to be a fine clothes maker—and a puppet.

And there are pasties (with or without onions? Hmm), lessons for life (“your imagination can be better than real life”), songs and dance routines (movement by Martin Hylton, a regular of the Stage 1 productions) and a fascinatingly complex set by Alison Ashton, a regular collaborator with Kitchen Zoo.

One of the great strengths of Kitchen Zoo live shows is the relationship which Hannah Goudie-Hunter and Nicholson are able to create with their young audience, but of course this isn’t possible in film to anything like the same extent, although their warm and engaging personalities do cross the divide between screen and audience.

It’s fun and enjoyable—not, it has to be said, a full replacement for The Hey Diddle Diddle Christmas Spectacular and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which hopefully we’ll see next year (or perhaps even before: who knows?) but it’s got all the ingredients to give the kids a good time while still entertaining the adults—and where else this year will you find a king who sounds just like Henning Wehn?

Reviewer: Peter Lathan