As my children are now in Year 3 and have graduated from The Very Hungry Caterpillar canon, I was a little nervous as to whether they’d find the hour-long stage adaptation of Kes Gray and Jim Field’s Oi Frog (and the rest of the Oi opus) too pre-school for their palette. My nerves were soothed within about 30 seconds of the curtain rising on this jointly developed production from Emma Earle, Zoe Squire, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes. In fact, they were so transported into the world of strict rhyming-seating-plan doctrine as propagated by the officious Cat (Lucy Tuck), serving as self-appointed headmistress at The Sittingbottom School for Animals, that I think I should hand over this review to them.
‘Fifteen stars!’ declared my son, taking off a shoe and sock to emphasis the additional digits and the rarity of achieving such a rating out of five. (This gesture is made by the same child who would only afford Sally Cookson’s Peter Pan for the National Theatre a mere three stars and grudgingly gave Jonathan Rockefeller’s excellent pre-school puppetry showcase for the works of Eric Carle a paltry two.) His twin sister, vocalising rather than gesturing her opinion, offered the following description: ‘funny, alive and hilarious!’ She then reflected and added: ‘plus all the songs were really cool and catchy. I would say it was exquisite and impeccable.’
I cannot quibble. This show is pure catnip for the under-eight crowd. Pre-school children will certainly enjoy the puppetry (designed by Yvonne Stone), the music (from Luke Bateman) and the vibrant, primary coloured scenic design (from Zoe Squire). Children ranging into the early years of Juniors will ride waves of pathos with Frog and notice his transformation from a sensible dissenter into a sort of amphibious Robespierre who frantically issues diabolical seating diktats based solely on the accident of species nomenclature and its nearest rhyming object. For adults, there is something infectiously joyous about waiting for the next daredevil couplet; I, for one, cannot help but chuckle at the paring of ‘gnu’ and ‘canoe’. With the same kind of clever linguistic jeopardy of a Flanders and Swann sketch, the absurdity (literally) piles on with pigs atop of wigs and boars riding on oars, as power-crazed Frog enacts his perverse authoritarian poetry.
In adapting Oi Frog the team took the trouble to develop a story with essential tension and reversal. I don’t think anyone is expecting its plot to be remembered as a dramatic classic, but the authors extended respect to each member of the audience by structuring an actual play rather than just coasting on the appeal of memorable characters brought to life – and it shows. Distinguishing itself from many other adaptations of successful children’s intellectual property, this production has worked carefully on pace, characterisation and even backstory that are not present in the delightful bestselling books but which are entirely complementary and organic-feeling.
Emma Earle’s cast is also a cut-above many children’s theatre troupes. Simon Yadoo’s Cheetah delivers a show-stopping number with powerful pipes and a great dance routine. John Winchester’s Frog is rendered with a believable and moving blend of crestfallen little-guy-sympathy and manic comic delivery. It is impossible not to feel the slobbering effervescence of Darren Seed’s wagging and boisterous dog or the prickly distance born of trauma in Lucy Tuck’s Cat. (Yes, I just said that about a Cheetah, Frog, Dog and Cat… and I stand by it!) The cast are all strong singers and gel together with the sort of joy such an undertaking requires. John Bulleid, who seems to turn his magic to all the top family shows at the moment, has once again added extra magical thrills to this one – which also gives appeal for a wider audience.
With just enough knowing not to be cloying but never coming across as too-clever-for-its-own-good, this is an outstanding and engaging diversion for the holidays or any time of year. Watch out, though: you may find yourself hunting for tortured rhymes for quite some time – but that’s just fine.
Review by Mary Beer
Oi Frog & Friends! will bring together Kes Gray and Jim Field’s bestselling and award-winning picture books Oi Frog!, Oi Dog!, Oi Cat! and Oi Duck-billed Platypus!, published by Hachette Children’s Group. It is created for the stage by Director Emma Earle, Designer Zoe Squire (Co-Artistic Directors of Pins and Needles Productions), Composer Luke Bateman and Lyricist Richy Hughes. Puppet Design is by Yvonne Stone with Lighting Design by Ric Mountjoy.
The cast line-up for the West End and 2019/20 UK Tour is Darren Seed as DOG, Lucy Tuck as CAT, John Winchester as FROG (Autumn 2019 & WEST END), Robin Hemmings as FROG (Spring / Summer 2020), and Simon Yadoo as CHEETAH, with Rebecca Ayres as Understudy/ASM.
London – West End
Show: Oi Frog & Friends!
Adapted from the bestselling books by Kes Gray and Jim Field
Dates: 29 November 2019 – 5 January 2020
Venue: Lyric Theatre, 29 Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, London W1D 7ES