It may not be your average family fare but Amy Hodge's production of Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear – the Musical! (Dorfman Theatre at the National), with book and lyrics by Andy Stanton and music by Jim Fortune, is so jolly and anarchic it is hard to dislike.
In the town of Lamonic Bibber, where every resident is almost worryingly happy to the extent that they sing about it, a lost bear has turned up, whom nine-year-old Polly (adult actor Keziah Joseph) names Padlock. He is losing his fur because he is such a long way from home, so Polly enlists her wacky friends to help get him back. These include headmaster Alan Taylor, who is, in fact, a gingerbread man, and enormously obese hot air balloonist Jonathan Ripples (Gary Wilmot). However, Padlock falls into the malign clutches of cantankerous misanthrope Mr Gum (Steve Furst) and his dopy sidekick Billy (Helena Lymbery) who force the animal to dance for his supper. A rollercoaster ride ensues featuring many thrills and spills–including the wonky-eyed Captain Brazil who offers passages to Polly and Padlock on his ship the Nantucket Tickler, only to double-cross them–as the bad guys threaten to make life difficult for our plucky little heroine and her ursine friend.
This wisecracking, rib-tickling, side-splitting phantasmagoria with its off-kilter humour, has as much in it to appeal to adults as well as kids. Overall, though, this tongue-in-cheek production, well-meaning as it is, does not have enough bite to make a really strong impression, while the lively, if unmemorable, songs are long, presumably to try to hide the thinness of the story.
The show, however, has some real strengths. Georgia Lowe's costumes and sets are a lot of fun, and her giant bear costume, made from recycled cardboard boxes, is truly inventive, while the use of puppetry helps breathe life into the collection of oddball characters. There is also a healthy dose of the macabre, most notably at the beginning, when we see a giant slab of bloody, congealed meat dangling over a wheelbarrow. But the most eye-opening and memorable scene is when the theatre's ceiling is covered with hanging umbrellas opening above our heads which adds a moment of spectacle to the show.
Furthermore, the show is soaked in psychedelic colours and sounds and musical director Tarek Merchant leads a quirky ensemble of four performers, playing, among other things, a musical saw, dulcimer and accordion.
And you certainly can't resist its welcome message of friendship, happiness, ecological awareness, working together and loving bears!
Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear
Runs until Saturday 31 August at the Dorfman Theatre.
Box office: 020 7452 3000.Last modified: April 6, 2021