‘Are the Moomins monsters, or hippos?’
This was the question posed by my four- and two-year olds, on our way to see Moominsummer Madness at the Polka Theatre, South London.
If I had to plump for one or the other, I would say they’re more like hippos. Home-loving, a tad territorial, protective of their families, and yes, even graceful swimmers (especially when chasing floating strings of sausages). In this collaboration between the Polka, Little Angel and Royal & Derngate Theatres, the Moomins showed several characteristics similar to those portly grey swimming mammals.
Where the Moomins differ, though, is how they regularly find themselves thrown into anarchic adventures, through the storylines dreamed up by Tove Jansson (their creator and whose centenery it is this year).
Translating one of these zany plots into a stage show was a risky move. A children’s performance works when it can transform something simple (whether that’s a plot, set or concept) into something that works on many levels, because the children in the audience have been able to leave their own stamp on the show. Or, it succeeds if it presents lots of different ideas, in a way that grabs the attention of the youngsters, without blinding them with complexity.
Moominsummer Madness fell into the second category. At one hour and 35 minutes, with an interval, it was the longest performance I’d been to with four-year-old Austin. I did thing it might be too much for two-year-old Gwen. We went to the ‘All Ages Welcome’ performance (the show is billed as suitable for 4-8 year olds) and, so long as you don’t expect younger children to sit quietly through the whole thing, it works. The simple but varied set, the delightful, catchy songs (by Ben Glasstone), and the plot twists – including a play-within-the-play reminiscent of Shakespeare’s very own Midsummer Night’s Dream – are engaging enough to prevent toddlers from exiting in a bored hummph.
And, for children within the age bracket, it’s a grand adventure. The Moomin puppets are operated by Nick Ash, Ruth Calkin, Claire Harvey and Lori Hopkins; the actors are always there, on stage, but cloaked in black to foreground the glowy white stars of the show.
MoominsPappa, Mamma, Troll and SnorkMaiden are swept away from their home by a flood, along with Little My. They journey to safety in a floating theatre run by Emma the stage rat, and then back home again. Along the way, they encounter other whimsical characters: gloomy Misabel, an imposing Hemulan policeman, and Moomintroll’s good friend, Snufkin.
The different scenes are presented as little vignettes, each with a different feel – some slapstick and pantomimic, others slow and graceful. The songs – beautiful as they were – did make some scenes too long for the interest levels of our four-year-old, but there was usually something interesting to spot on stage. The tree at the edge of some scenes, for instance, which prompted discussions about why , if it was technically the same tree that Moomintroll and Snorkmaiden had been sitting in for the previous scene, they weren’t still in it? And how could they now be off stage, lost somewhere else in the flood?
This is one of the reasons why a performance like Moominsummer Madness is such a magnificent thing for children. Not only does it provide a fabulous piece of entertainment for the family, but it can also help kick-start conversations about truth, reality, storytelling and imagination.
Two-year-old now Gwen keeps asking me where the Moomins are. She loved watching those skillfully crafted puppets glide around in front of her (even during the scary bits, of which there were several). When I reply, I tell her that the Moomins are on the stage. And that they’re also at home. Not Emma’s theatre-home, which was their temporary sanctuary during the flood, and where Moominpappa wrote and starred in his own Midsummer Night’s performance. But in their real home.
Which is on stage.
I’m sure there’s a meaning in that somewhere, and I’ve been trying to puzzle it over these last few days.
Perhaps Austin and Gwen, if they grow up to attend the theatre regularly, will help me work it all out.
Disclosure: we were given tickets for the family to go see Moominsummer Madness at the Polka Theatre for the purpose of this review, but all opinions are honest and my own.
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.