What a delicious adventure story this is and how well it adapts to the stage. Adam Penford’s fluid and inventive production of Louis Sachar’s novel is the first main stage family show outside of the panto season for a very long time.
The plot is multi-layered and labyrinthine. When a pair of sneakers apparently falls from the sky, an innocent boy is branded a thief and sent to dig holes with a bunch of misfits at a punishment camp in the Texan desert. The cruelly named Green Lake Camp is overseen by an evil Warden (played by Kacey Ainsworth with a wicked American twang), and her bullying henchman, Mr Sir. He’s one of several memorable characters played by Playhouse panto favourite, John Elkington.
Every piece of the set – from a cactus to a rowing-boat – is either flown in or whizzed in to the largely empty space. This creates a sense of magic. It’s also the means of clarifying and connecting the two parallel threads of a story and a set of characters over a century apart, seamlessly played by actors in multiple roles.
Chris Ashby plays the hapless boy, Stanley, with artlessness and conviction. There is clever and simple puppetry, some breath-holding moments (a descent of myriad lanterns as stars over a bare mountain), and a colourful and exuberant hoe-down. The show is physical and gleeful.
Yet it works on another level too, to confront bullying and racism and the unfairness of the things that happen to people. That’s the subtlety and triumph of the whole.