A cold, rainy evening in Hounslow. The trains are running late. And this reviewer is soaked through and exhausted. There’s nothing like a lost travelcard and shoes that let the water in to spoil the day. So what an unexpected pleasure to arrive at the Paul Robeson Theatre to find the foyer transformed into a twinkly and rustic woodland garden; bedecked with tin-roofed sheds, fairy-lit trees, and brightly coloured umbrellas swinging from the rafters, it makes for an atmospheric beginning to London Contemporary Theatre’s ‘Stig of the Dump’ and would immediately cheer even the most miserable of audience members. It is difficult to believe that Clive King’s classic children’s novel is now well over fifty years old. However, it shows few signs of ageing – partly due to King’s wicked sense of adventure but also thanks to Mike Kenny’s lively adaptation and Luke Sheppard’s production, which bursts with infectious energy and constantly surprises with inventive touches.
The story is simple and yet sparks the imagination: on summer holidays in the chalk Downs, a young boy, Barney, falls into a pit whilst playing near his grandparents’ house and encounters a shaggy-haired caveman named Stig, who speaks no English and lives in a rubbish-filled den. Their subsequent escapades – going hunting, decorating Stig’s abode, thwarting burglars – show a blossoming friendship that is as frustrating as it is heart-warming, chiefly because none of Barney’s family believe in his new pal.
Sheppard has clearly drilled his four-strong multi-rolling cast well – it’s a technically tricky show and the demands on the actors heavy – and they more than deliver. This is a sweet, innovative, and entertaining evening, largely played with a breakneck pace and utter conviction. Granted, the humour is extremely broad and daft but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and the families lapped up every gag on the night I attended. The quartet of actors – William Pennington, Chandni Mistry, Sam Gannon, and Julia Cave – are a winning and trusting ensemble, making it all look effortless, swapping characters with aplomb, and hurling themselves into proceedings with a cheeky sense of fun; in particular, Gannon handles his array of roles (and the audience) very skilfully indeed and Mistry’s vibrancy and comic timing are a delight. Interactive sequences – catchy ditties to warble along to, a jazzy dance routine that gets everyone to their feet – whip up the crowd superbly and even extend to the interval, where the bar was full of busy children, drawing and colouring their favourite characters, and whose creations were pegged on Grandma’s washing line, causing much excitement. London Contemporary knows its audience – and plays to them beautifully.
Stuffed to the brim with puppetry, live music, dance, narration, and visual treats – a particularly striking physical routine involving the use of silhouette is transfixing – the production always engages and delights, even if it seems a bit too exhausting and frenetic. In fact, there are moments where movement feels restricted because of the eye-catching but cluttered set design and the freedom of the performers slightly diminished. However, this is a minor quibble as the aesthetics are impressive – piles of old newspapers, wheelbarrows and tyres sit haphazardly against rusty sinks, gas stoves, and garden implements – and the simple lighting helps with clarity of story and location. Cues felt sharp and audience interaction confident (this was only the second performance) and will only improve throughout the run, although there are times where Sheppard’s staging needs tightening and crucial narrative moments feel either lost or skipped over. If I have any qualms in regards to Kenny’s script, apart from occasional sections where the story flags and sags, the chief one is the ending, which feels both sudden and rushed; more of a whimper than a bang – there is not enough threat leading up to the denouement – but luckily, the cast treat us to a spirited sing-a-long which ensures we emerge into the night with grins spread on our faces.
I remember ‘Stig of the Dump’ from my own childhood – indeed, it was a favourite of mine – and here, proves it translates to the stage surprisingly well, bursting with life and colour. Teasing the audience into using their imagination (a brush and duster become a badger; a guitar case acts as a leopard) and with a fluidity and ease that sweeps you along on Barney’s journey, London Contemporary has created a joyously ramshackle family show which should enchant children of all ages (and even you big kids out there). So pack up your knapsack, join the irrepressible Stig, and take yourself back to a summer adventure where anything felt possible.
Review by Adam Elms.
Paul Robeson Theatre, Hounslow, & touring
(Performance seen: Thursday 24th March 2016)
Touring the UK until 5th June – visit http://stigofthedump.co.uk/ for more details.