“Look! Katy’s right there!!”
Casting a CBeebies presenter in a stage show for children is a short-cut to popularity. Katy Ashworth’s turn in London Contemporary Theatre’s Stig of the Dump gave the show kudos with my two young companions (both 6). But unlike some other shows I’ve sat through which feature a ‘celebrity’ cast, Stig of the Dump was strong enough in its own right. It didn’t need the help of a children’s TV chef to carry it.
For those unfamiliar with Clive King’s original tale, it features a boy called Barney, who has gone with his sister Lou to stay with their Grandparents. Nobody believes Barney when he tells them he’s found a boy in a chalk pit. But that just means the two youngsters have the freedom to spend time without grown-ups, re-building Stig’s den, going hunting, and thwarting the dastardly deeds of some burglars.
I was sceptical about how successfully a 160-page children’s novel – adapted into ten episodes for the popular 1980s TV programme – could be condensed into a show of just under an hour. But Mike Kenny and Luke Sheppard have crafted Stig of the Dump’s main plotline into a format that rivals the Reduced Shakespeare Company for pace. This works well with the young audience. Energy levels are raised right from the start: children are invited to colour in pictures when they arrive at their seats, and hurl them onto the stage for Katy (Barney’s Grandma) to peg onto a washing line. The performance itself begins with a warm-up exercise for the audience and cast, and there are regular pit-stops through the hour for interactive songs as well as dancing (mainly faux-maracas and shoulder-shimmies – there’s not much legroom in the Arts Theatre). This all keeps the action fast and fresh, and gives a bit of breathing space in the packed schedule of the show.
And that would be my only niggle with Stig of the Dump; it was so fast, that a joke or two was lost in the speed of it all. Grandma, for instance, pops up holding a dirty toilet seat around her face. I couldn’t quite fathom the point of it: I’m sure the gag must have been funny, as the script was otherwise witty and accessible. But it was lost on the audience. There wasn’t enough time to savour the joke before the action rushed onwards.
The stage was piled high with grubby grey-brown items which served as both Grandma and Grandpa’s home, and Stig’s rubbish dump. The set was reminiscent of a pared-down version of Theatre-Rites magnificently smouldering garbage tip in 2014’s Rubbish; and Casey Jay Andrew’s puppet version of Stig, with broken chair legs for feet, looked as though he had organically sprung from the mounds around him. Also impressively bestial was Sam Gannon’s human version of Stig, who when he wasn’t playing Grandad leapt around grunting in a gutteral Scandi-Asian hybrid of a language.
The four-person cast went to tremendous effort to keep the audience engaged and entertained, with slapstick humour, gymnastics and visual gags (like balloons, under a cardi, for boobs. The old classics are the best). This is where Katy Ashworth’s chirpy children’s presenter credentials came into their own; and she was rivalled by Chandni Mistry (Lou) and William Pennington (Barney) for charisma. In the Arts Theatre’s small, personable auditorium the cast’s friendly approach worked well, and even the most cynical-looking audience member appeared to be enjoying the Stiggy high jinks by the end of the performance.
Stig of the Dump ran at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End until 26 August 2016, and was aimed at children over 4. Tickets start at £15.50
Don’t forget to check out our guide to the best theatres for kids in London.