Julia Donaldson, adap Emma Kilbey
The Lowry, Salford Quays,
August 4-September 3 (daytimes); 60 mins
Madam Dragon ran a school, many moons ago.
She taught young dragons all the things that dragons need to know.
Zog, the biggest dragon, was the keenest one by far.
He tried his hardest every day to win a golden star...
The words of Julia Donaldson and the pictures of Axel Scheffler are hard to beat, as you might imagine, for under-8s in particular. But this show gives us plenty to enhance the familiarity of those rhyming couplets and inspired illustration of the bedtime favourite, Zog.
This kind of show has the unenviable task of having to compete with the limitless imagination of children. Yet the problem is solved admirably on this occasion by Freckle Productions, which specialises in exactly this kind of story-telling. Indeed, on her own website, Julia Donaldson lists the stage production ahead of the stunning BBC animated version of 2018.
The genius of Freckle Productions is to think like children at play, and to show the workings out. A puppet can be so much more fun when you can see the strings and the person working it. And the puppetry is just beautiful, a close recreation of Scheffler’s illustrations. Dragons of all colours are manipulated by child-like puppeteers (dragons in dungarees), then mounted on flexible poles, to soar through the audience, or as the poem goes "zig-zag through the blue". It’s a wonder to behold.
As my children pointed out to me, sometimes the characters are the puppets, but sometimes they are the actors in approximated dragon outfits with a more improvised feel, like children in fancy dress. But common elements between actor and puppet (colour, tail, wings, etc.) create perfect synchronicity, so the question never arises as to whether it might not be the same character; it’s perfectly understood. This was a particularly popular element with my daughters. If a child were to play a dragon with a costume and a puppet interchangeably, this is exactly how she would do it.
Set and props are simplistic: scaffolding at once allows actors to realise the motion of flight, with balletic rising and tumbling, particularly well executed by Princess Pearl (Lois Glenister), leaving gaps for the imagination. A silk hankie for the dragons' fire breathing gives us a flash of color and excitement - and shows us how we might breathe fire as well.
My favourite character was Gadabout the camp knight, who wants to dance rather than fight but on a whim becomes a trainee doctor, recruited by Pearl, all romance and royalty thoroughly subverted by the feminist (ex-princess) doctor. This song (by Joe Stilgoe) was the best one of the afternoon, and unlike some of the previous Donaldson stage adaptations, had a real West End vibe. My daughter was concerned that one of the dragons had disappeared in order to facilitate Gadabout’s arrival, but that the actor (Ben Locke) was extremely skilled to manage such a contradictory multi-role. Danny Hendrix also played youthfully in the title role, and the relentless work put in by all five of the cast was quite breathtaking.
On our way out of the Lowry we encountered epic queuing for the exhibition Julia and Axel – Thirty Years ofFavourite Stories which continues for the rest of the year, and looks well worth returning to for anyone with small children unwilling to brave the line.
It’s a big well done and a gold star to the Lowry for creating an immersive family experience, and to Freckle for a great piece of theatre, engaging everyone from toddlers to seasoned theatre critics.
Who doesn’t like a flying princess/doctor, a singing, dancing knight, and three dragons with an achievable fire-breathing method you could try yourself at home?