Hannah is a little girl that loves gorillas. She spends all day drawing them, watching programmes about them, and talking about them. She tries to share her love for these wonderful animals with her dad, but he’s too busy. Then, on the night of her birthday she received a small toy gorilla that comes to life and takes her on an adventure, teaching her about kindness and gratitude, and her dad then gives her the best birthday ever. This classic children’s book, Gorilla, is charmingly brought to life with two actors, two puppets and a detailed but lo-tech set for children aged four to eight at Polka Theatre.
The story is a wonderful little adventure, executed quietly and calmly, without special effects and updating to reflect present day. Even the music sounds like it comes from a 1970s lounge bar. Initially I found it all terribly old fashioned, but considering the technology children are bombarded with today, it makes a refreshing change and reminds us that children don’t need an ipad and hi-tech toys to entertain them by the time they’re 3. After Hannah’s introduction, the sequence to establish her day-to-day routine and dad’s busyness is rather repetitive; the children in the audience became a bit fidgety and chatty. Once Hannah’s birthday arrives and the adventure begins through puppet versions of the characters, the audience of little ones becomes quiet and focused. Set changes tend towards the lengthy side, but the reveals that come from the set flips, rope tugs and lighting changes are choreographic in and of themselves.
The puppets suit the design of the set, old fashioned but still detailed and expressive. Actors Ceri Ashcroft and Phil Yarrow are good, with lovely chemistry, though at times it was hard to hear Ashcroft during the songs. The barometer for children’s theatre is the children in the audience though, and these maintained a steady focus once Hannah and her gorilla friend meet. They took some time to settle and weren’t grasped by the beginning exposition, but the rest of the play more than compensated.
There were some lovely staging choices by director Roman Stefanski. Particularly notable are the puppets coming into the audience as it transformed into a cinema and watching the audience as zoo animals from outside the bars of the cage. Transforming the human sized set into a puppet sized one also enchanted the audience, both adult and child. This is particularly praise-worthy as the transitions were quite lengthy and all changes (or most of them) looked operated solely by the performers.
This was my first visit to the Polka. What I found most disappointing was that the house was only half full. The theatre could certainly do with the revenue full houses generate, and this production makes a refreshing change from the fancy bells and whistles of West End family shows. The building emanates a warm sense of community that local families should enjoy more often, and it’s a break from fast and loud modern life. After all, people my age and older thrived in a childhood without the internet and handheld gadgets. Gorilla not only tells a sweet story with a strong female child as a lead, it proves that children today can enjoy live entertainment that quietly focuses on old fashioned adventure storytelling.
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