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Not Now, Bernard review at Unicorn Theatre, London – ‘effective adaptation of popular children’s book’

Bea Holland and Guy Rhys in Not Now, Bernard at London's Unicorn Theatre. Photo: Camilla Greenwell Bea Holland and Guy Rhys in Not Now, Bernard at London's Unicorn Theatre. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Happily-ever-afters are so ubiquitous in work for children that a story that embraces ambiguity is a refreshing experience. Based on the picture book by David McKee, Not Now, Bernard is about a boy whose parents are too busy to play with him.

Guy Rhys is heart-breaking as Bernard – stoical in the face of his parents’ more-or-less benign neglect – and enjoyably mischievous as the monster that eats and then replaces him in the family home. Bea Holland and Ben Adams as Bernard’s mother and father do a good line in expressive exasperation.

Sarah Argent’s gentle, slow-paced production finds the humour in this material, while not shying away from addressing the childish fears and frustrations at its heart: of feeling ignored, invisible and unloved. The decision to include some narration alongside the handful of lines of dialogue is a perplexing one, suggesting a lack of confidence in Argent’s staging or her actors’ abilities to get the story across. There’s no danger of that – even very young audiences will be able to follow the action here.

Placing the emphasis on the physical rather than the verbal gives Owen Crouch’s sound design – jaunty tunes, both contemporary and classical – the chance to shine. Sam Waddington’s lighting design skilfully moves the action between the two locations – home and garden – that share Natalie Pryce’s colourful set.

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Safe but effective adaptation of the popular picture book