A FABULOUS SHOW IN EVERY WAY
by Lynley Dodd
Adapted by Tim Bray
Song and character themes by Christine White
Incidental music by Kristie Addison
Tim Bray Productions
at The Pumphouse, Takapuna, Auckland
From 8 Oct 2011 to 22 Oct 2011
Reviewed by Lexie Matheson, 16 Oct 2011
It has to be said that Tim Bray is one tall puppy. Much of the history of Tim's company and his wide-ranging successes can be read in my review of Lion in the Meadow which can be found here so I won't go over it again beyond saying that Tim's work for children maintains a consistently high standard and he always manages to avoid my personal pet children's theatre hate which is talking down to kids.
The trust audiences have in his work is exemplified by the fact that this season of Hairy Maclary is sold out, although more than a smidgeon of credit must also go to Lynley Dodd whose critter creations are icons for Kiwi kids and have been for almost 30 years.
Hairy Maclary has overflowed into a dozen beautifully illustrated books since his first doggy outing in 1983, soon after which the Duke of Edinburgh declared that Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy was his favourite children's read which can't have hindered the wee chap's popularity a single jot!
As recently as May 2011 the newest Mrs Edinburgh, the Duchess of Cornwall (commonly known as Camilla), asked a bunch of children from Emmaus Catholic and Church of England Primary School in Sheffield whether they, like her, were fans of the small, hirsute one and was drowned out by their affirmative reply. Since The Duchess of Cornwall is Patron of the National Literacy Trust and is known to read a bit, it can fairly be assumed that the bed chamber of the future king of England resounds with cries of “Hercules Morse as big as a horse” from time to time.
Dodd is also responsible for the divine, acutely accurate, suburban illustrations that support the ever youthful Maclary adventures and she – probably at his yappy insistence – has generously written tales featuring his various furry and feathery chums in almost as many volumes again.
It's worth noting that, unlike many animal stories for little ones, Dodd never tries to superimpose human characteristics onto her hairy heroes and each remains staunchly true to his or her genus throughout, forever dogs, cats and, of course, the odd anomalous duck.
This stalwart faithfulness can present difficulties – as though there weren't enough – for any director brave enough to try to bring them to life on the stage in fur-fabric suits inhabited by humans who, in the main, tend to walk upright and, mostly, use recognisable linguistic interaction to communicate. Dodd's animals never speak and to ask them to do so for a stage show would be the kiss of death. So it's a challenge and one I'm happy to say Tim Bray and his exemplary cast were equal to.
The crew list does include a yoga teacher while the acknowledgments note that Bryce Hatton and Griff Cook of the New Zealand School of Massage looked after the actors “during the intense and physical rehearsal and performance period” and having seen the show I can only imagine that the “Thank you!” in the programme has been well earned.
The Pumphouse Theatre was as immaculate as always which is no mean feat considering that most of their current audience is made up of under fives and the age gap between the kids and their accompanying family members could mostly be counted in decades rather than years. Grandparents do a great job during school, and pre-school, holidays and theatre – especially good theatre – must be a godsend for them.
The Rachael Walker-designed set is straight from Dodd's beautifully crafted suburban reverie and is made up of classic cut-out trees and attractive and useful ground rows, the obligatory gatepost – in this case the gatepost of Hercules Morse - at number 54 (this is a tale about dogs after all), a functional letter box and Astroturf as far as the eye could see. Successful sets always have some nice surprises and the gently falling, shiny coloured paper leaves were a rather special touch. There are milk bottles at the gate and Downstage right we see Hairy Maclary's basket, his coloured blanket and his personalised bowl.
Kids like to dress up – don't we all – and many do for shows of this nature. Tim Bray Productions always acknowledge this with a fashion parade of appropriately clad kids before each show with each dressed-up youngster getting a prize. This is another nice touch and one guaranteed to win over the grumpiest of caregivers even if the ‘season sold out' sign does upset some others.
The Narrator (Georgia Wood), who also plays Miss Plum, Grandmother Pugh (a vision in teal), Zachary Quack (with the help of a great wee puppet) and Samuel Stone, appears first pushing a rowdy lawn mower and does a few circuits of the Astroturf before the arrival of the hero of our narrative Hairy Maclary himself (Sarah Houbolt, although you'd never know it).
The audience erupted in delight at the appearance of this small, black, shaggy and knobbly-kneed creature largely because he looks so like Dodd's illustration – no mean feat – and this sets the scene magically for what is to follow. Houbolt heralds the movement style adopted by all the actors – the only credible choice in my opinion – one full of beans and bouncing on all fours, yapping incessantly, as we all know small dogs do. The decision to have the dogs move like dogs and not humans in suits allows us all to suspend our disbelief and to live for 45 minutes in the real world of Lynley Dodd and her delightful creations.
The costumes are uniformly fantastic and replicate Dodd's illustrations perfectly. Each supports the actor inside perfectly in the creation of idiosyncratic styles of movement, barks, snuffles and slobbers that were just right, each for each.
Christine White's songs are a delight. Whether performing with Hinemoana Baker, operating as a solo artist or making music for kids, Christine's work is magnificent. If you don't know what she does, check her out on You Tube. Enough said.
Georgia Wood handles White's songs marvellously and is blessed with a vocal range that matches the pipes of all the pooches, even Bottomly Potts (Tom Wardle) and Hercules Morse (Adam Burrell) whose deep, burglar-proofing barks are more than effective. Wood has the narrator's gift and is able to disappear within the tale while making every word tell. We don't look at her but follow the action that she is illuminating and we hear, and understand, every word.
Making conventional theatre work depends to some degree on the existence of an innate conflict but the conflict that exists in Dodd's stories, such as it is, isn't conventional at all. It doesn't seem to matter in Dog World, however, and the essence of the stories is never lost. What does exist is a face-off between Scarface Claw (Courtney Chittenden) and Hercules Morse (Adam Burrell) reminiscent of Capone versus Ness; the meeting of Hairy Maclary and Zachary Quack which ends in a drenched, but lifelong, friendship of sorts; the managed madness of the obedience class and the battle between Schnitzel von Krumm (Natasya Yusoff) and the Astroturf. Anyone who has ever seen a dog dig a hole will be enchanted by the accuracy of the work of the low tummed one.
All the above – and a sing-along ending that all the littlies joined in without being asked – makes for a very satisfying, and just long enough, visit to the theatre. You can't ask for more than that.
It's a fabulous show in every way but, for me, it's primarily success lies in finding the balance between remaining absolutely true to Dodd's eccentric characters and quirky narrative while at the same time bringing astonishing creative dexterity to the task of solving the myriad of problems associated with bringing these much-loved children's classics to the stage. Such a task requires sublime teamwork and the last word should be to acknowledge Tim Bray's fabulous crew. Teams like this are not assembled overnight and we're all better off as a result of Bray's tireless teambuilding and the ability of his cast and crew to consistently punch above their weight.
I suspect it's all about trust: our trust in their product, and their trust in each other. And love – in this case our shared love of the lines that transport us to a very special Kiwi ‘somewhere else':
Out of the gate and off for a walk
Went Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy …
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