Review: Not Now, Bernard at the Unicorn Theatre

Not Now, Bernard
Rhys Rusbatch as Bernard the monster. Image by Manuel Harlan

Heaven is sitting with a two-year-old on your lap, a four-year-old snuggled into your side, and a fluffy purple monster growling, two feet away.

Or so I thought when I found myself at Not Now, Bernard, a Unicorn Theatre performance based on the book by David McKee, directed by Ellen McDougall and starring Rhys Rusbatch.

I’ve been fascinated by David McKee ever since I read his book Three Monsters to Austin a couple of years ago. The grown-up themes of immigration, asylum and acceptance were conveyed subtly, with colour and humour. It sent out a message that the last laugh was on the intolerant inhabitants of an island, who are unwilling to share it with a outsider seeking sanctuary.

Not Now, Bernard Not Now, Bernard, on the other hand, has always disturbed me a little.

A small boy repeatedly asks his parents to play with him, to which they always reply ‘Not Now, Bernard’. He goes out into the garden to entertain himself, and is eaten by a monster. When the monster/Bernard goes back into the house, despite the monster’s best efforts to get their attention his parents don’t even notice that Bernard’s gone, and a monster has taken his place.

A parable of emotional neglect, or a funny story to reassure children that, even if they act like horrid little monsters, their parents will still treat them exactly the same?

Reviews of the original book seem to be split on the answer. But one thing I can say for sure, is that the stage performance of Not Now, Bernard at the Unicorn was my favourite theatre trip so far this year. And, when I asked Austin yesterday, he said the same.

It seems that dressing up a monster in purple and pink frou-frou takes the edge off any suggestion of child neglect. And, for my two children, even though Rhys Rusbatch’s beast was snarling directly at them on occasions (we managed to fight our way to front row, centre-stage seats), it was good-scary, not bad-scary. The type of fear that makes children wrap themselves round an obliging parent, giving the parent that special, child-induced tingly feeling.

Rhys Rusbatch as Monster 2 Photographer Manuel Harlan Rhys Rusbatch, as both the monster and Bernard, carried the show magnificently. Apart from a few peeks round the edge of the set by purple-clad stage hands and a disembodied voice saying ‘Not Now, Bernard’, he was the sole human performer. Forward rolls, pantomime, pathos, humour, tension and squeaky feet all formed part of his repertoire. And he managed to leap around in a huge furry costume for a good twenty minutes, with only a few beads of sweat to show the physical exertion involved.

The set appeared as simple, with illustrations that were true to the original book. But all the flawless scene changes showed the breadth of work that had gone into the visual effects. For Gwen’s first proper trip to the theatre, it was perfect. The Unicorn, which holds performances for children of all ages in its 4-storey building, even had a small soft play area to keep the youngsters occupied before the show.

I’ve been raving about this performance, and the Unicorn, to friends. The theatre is right on the edge of London’s Southbank, five minutes from London Bridge, so it’s very handy for a day trip into town, or a visit from further afield (it would be easy to combine a show here with, say, a flight on the London Eye and a trip to the London Dungeon).

Maybe not that last one for us, though. Good-scary, with a four- and a two-year-old, was delightfully snuggly. But we’ll keep the thrill of bad-scary for few years, at least.

Not Now, Bernard runs until 1 May 2014

Disclosure: we were given free tickets to see Not Now, Bernard at the Unicorn Theatre. But all views expressed here are my own.

All images in this post are copyright of Manuel Harlan.

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