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Five Children and It at the Tabard Theatre

There’s a strong whiff of The Railway Children in the closing moments of this adaptation of Five Children and It – well, there would be, given that both books for children were written by Edith Nesbit (1858-1924). The father of several children returns (quite where from doesn’t seem to be all that important) in a rather poignant moment, showering gifts on his flesh and blood – or most of them, anyway. Nobody drew attention to someone not getting a present, but the children in the audience, for whom the show is largely aimed, seemed very much on the ball and sharp-minded: I’m fairly certain they would have picked up on it.

Five Children and ItThe book, as it happens, doesn’t exactly take an eternity to read: I managed it in a single train journey, albeit one from London Paddington to Swansea which arrived late. Still, there are some things in the narrative that are more difficult to stage than others. This production doesn’t necessarily go for the easiest options available: one child in the audience, in the front row, was so astonished at the announcement of what was to follow, he hollered, “How dare you!” Alas, it’s too much of a spoiler to state precisely what horrified the young patron, suffice to say the production relies on a significant amount of CGI – that is, Collective Group Imagination.

The Psammead (Adam Boyle), here, a grumpy fairy portrayed as a sort of teddy bear with pointy ears (it has to be seen to be believed, really), grants one wish a day. The main characters being children – remarkably convincingly played by adult actors – their wishes are relatively frivolous, which is just as well given the important caveat that the wish is granted only until dusk that day. It’s a humorous tale, with ‘be careful what you wish for, you might just get it’ being the order of the day (and the next day, and the next, and so on). The children quickly grasp the fundamentals, and try not to wish for something ridiculous, but their imaginations and natural instincts to wish for X, Y and Z forces the Psammead, pronounced ‘sam-mee-add’, who operates like a game show host who can only accept a contestant’s first answer, to act on what it hears being wished. The correct pronoun is indeed ‘it’ – the ‘it’ of the play’s title.

The insertion of carols into the storyline and the repeated appearance of a Christmas tree in the family’s front room makes this (just about) a seasonal show. Lizzie Treece as the children’s mother is a likeable figure of authority, which frankly is quite refreshing in the sense that it’s a departure from the still commonplace storyline of children being oppressed by a tyrannical parent. The stage is kept reasonably free of set and props. Cyril (Sam Lightfoot-Loftus), Anthea (Lucia Jade Barker), sometimes referred to as Panther for reasons unexplained (my theory is she inadvertently called herself Panther when she was a baby, struggling to get her tongue around ‘Anthea’, and so the name stuck), Robert (Ben Prout) and Jane (Lucy Mai Heathcote) have differences of opinion but any animosity never lasts long. The fifth child is called the Lamb (it tends to bleat rather than cry), a baby.

It is quite impossible to pick a stand-out performance in what is very much an ensemble piece of theatre – the enthusiasm with which the dialogue is delivered is palpable and never wavers. This adaptation works well for contemporary audiences – the gender stereotyping in the nineteenth-century book, is challenged succinctly, for instance. Overall, it’s a charming and assured production, and offers something different from the raucousness of pantomime during the festive period.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

How often do you really mean it when you say ‘I wish I had…’?

On a trip to the countryside for Christmas, five siblings discover a magical, ancient and grumpy sand fairy whose wish-granting isn’t always as straightforward as they might hope.

A series of wishing adventures ensues, with some lessons along the way in being careful what you wish for.
Join Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane, baby ‘Lamb’ and the mysterious Psammead for some fun, frolics and flights of fancy at the Tabard this Christmas.

Cast: Lucia Jade Barker (Anthea), Adam Boyle (The Psammead/Father/Other roles), Lucy Mai Heathcote (Jane), Sam Lightfoot-Loftus (Cyril), Ben Prout (Robert), Lizzie Treece (Mother/Other roles).
Director: Simon Reilly; Designer: Clara Clark; Lighting Designer: Nat Green; Sound Designer: Nick Gilbert; Movement Director: Alexandra Ewing; Costume Supervisor: Elion Mittiga

Theatre at the Tabard, 2 Bath Road, Chiswick, London W4 1LW
8 – 31 December 2022

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