From the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm to the creations of Roald Dahl, the best children’s stories always have a healthy dose of the macabre, the eccentric and, most of all, a really good baddie.
So it is with Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear. Amy Hodge’s musical staging for seven-year-olds and over (book and lyrics by Stanton, music by Jim Fortune) opens with a giant slab of bloody, congealed meat dangling over a wheelbarrow. From there it just gets more delightfully weird and endlessly inventive.
Nine-year-old Polly (Keziah Joseph) lives in Lamonic Bibber, a dozy sunflower-lined town in which nothing much happens. One day, a shaggy, snuffly and moulting bear (Kate Malyon) lumbers into town. The evil Mr Gum (Steve Furst) and his hapless butcher sidekick (Helena Lymbery) want to capture poor Padlock (as Polly names him). They want him to dance so they can raise beer money.
From there, Polly and co set off to the dark and dingy docks “where life is cheap and death is on special offer all year round” and then to sea, with Padlock disguised as Purface, a very large, pink-eared cat. Along the way they meet Alan Taylor, possibly the only gingerbread scholar in the world, and eventually return Padlock to the wild.
All in, it’s mad as a shook-up box of frogs, crammed with hilarious lyrics and off-kilter humour. And all while delivering a beautiful message of friendship, happiness, ecological awareness, working together and loving bears. Lovely.