A couple of years back, our little family returned to see Stick Man at the Leicester Square Theatre, London. For the third year in a row. I asked myself, what was it about Stick Man that made us go back to see it, year after year?
The production, by Scamp Theatre and Watford Palace Theatre, is based on Julia Donaldson’s book (illustrated by Axel Scheffler). Anyone with small children will be familiar with the colourful, idiosyncratic characters sketched out through this duo’s words and pictures. The Gruffalo and his child, the witch looking for Room on the Broom, and Stick Man are already mesmerising characters, perfect for visual performance.
These characters aren’t just well-suited to the stage. They’ve also been made into compelling films for the small screen by Magic Light Pictures. As for a stage show, all that’s needed to transform Stick Man is a boost of physical theatre, some zingy props and a strong cast. Sally Cookson’s production had these in abundance.
Oh, and songs. Benji Bower’s perky, exuberant score burrowed its earwormy way into our household from the first time we went to see the performance back in 2013. I was glad that it remained largely unchanged for the three years we went to see the show.
So – what else makes Stick Man a winner, both on stage and on screen?
A graceful narrative arc
Stick Man – who usually ‘lives in the family tree, with his stick lady love, and his children 1 – 2 – 3’, becomes separated from his loved ones, and has to travel back home, through stick-life threatening danger, so that he can wake up with the children on Christmas morning. Travelling through adventures and then returning to the comfort of home is a familiar trope, seen in Homer’s Odyssey, The Chronicles of Narnia, and TV’s Mr Benn. Perfect for family viewing.
Peril and fear
During his journey to reach his family, Stick Man is gnawed by a dog, attacked by a karate-chopping girl and pecked at by a swan, all of which had my three-year-old daughter covering her mouth in horror. Those sequences didn’t last very long, though, so she didn’t stay scared for long.
To parents of small children: need I say more? Sticks are eternal sources of fascination and fun to the under-7s. Until our builders came and did a clear-up job in our front garden, we had a pile of twigs that was big enough to start a bonfire. All gathered from local parks, and kept to give as parting gifts to friends when playdates came to an end. Sticks make great swords, parent-prodders and mud pie-stirrers. A story based entirely around the adventures of a stick? Heaven.
A mid-life crisis
For the parents, this one. To me, it wasn’t entirely clear exactly how and why Stick Man became separated from his family, and had to set off on a solitary journey. Was he dragged away, or did he just leave? In the stage show we saw, the audience was guided by Richard Kiess through a stick-based existential crisis, where being gnawed by a dog, pecked by a swan, used as a bat and mistaken for kindling led Stick Man to assert his own (stick)-person hood: ‘I’m a STICK MAN, not a bat!’
After all this, he returned home. Which is fine for Mr Stick; but while he’s off in pursuit of self-discovery, poor old Mrs Stick was stuck at home, the ‘lonely’ custodian of three stick kids. But if any real-life Mrs Sticks find this all a little too uncomfortably close to home, the powerful female presence in the stage show of Rachel Winters, who did an amazing job of playing a dog, a karate-chopping girl and a female holidaymaker, should help redress the balance, and show it’s not only the Stick Men who have all the action.
You can’t beat an appearance from the bearded one to add a special festive note to a show. The bearded one came into the story at the end, to help save the day. Some of the antics at Leicester Square Theatre were pure Christmas pantomime, too, especially the dog/Stick chase through the audience. My son, who had just turned six when we saw the performance, was perhaps heading towards the upper age limit for Stick Man (its target is children over three), but Santa’s guest slot at the end sold it to him.
Have you seen Stick Man? Would you go back again?
Stick Man by Julia Donaldson is playing Christmas seasons at London’s Leicester Square Theatre until 6 January 2019. For details of tickets and pricing, visit the Stick Man website or the Leicester Square Theatre website. We were given family tickets for the purpose of this review, but all views are my own.
Stick Man has also been adapted into an animated film voiced by an all-star cast including Martin Freeman (Stick Man), Hugh Bonneville (Santa), Jennifer Saunders (The Narrator), Russell Tovey, Rob Brydon and Sally Hawkins.