WINNIE AND WILBUR, 4Star****, Birmingham, To 22 April

By Mike Kenny
4 Stars ****
The Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Birmingham, until 22nd April 2017.

One hour 30 minutes with 1 interval.
Review: Sam Crawford, 5th April.

A fun family treat!
Winnie the Witch and her black cat Wilbur will be familiar to children everywhere. Many will have enjoyed the books written by Valerie Thomas and illustrated by Korky Paul but now youngsters have the chance to meet their heroes in the flesh with this colourful, vibrant and seriously fun production of Mike Kenny’s new play. The actors make a conscious effort to establish a strong link with the children from the outset. It was lovely to see different characters strolling around the auditorium introducing themselves to excited youngsters, and it wasn’t long before the young audience started to get involved. Just before the play was about to start a little boy asked Ed Thorpe (Cousin Cuthbert) why he
was wearing a dress. ‘Why aren’t you?’ he replied.

Like all talented puppetteers, Ben Thompson’s greatest skill is his ability to disappear into the background whilst the audience watch Wilbur leap around the stage as he tidies up after a somewhat disorganised Winnie (Sophie Russell) who is in the midst of preparing for her birthday party. Children can expect to be dazzled by a range of special effects; Winnie’s ride on a bicycle and her journey through the sky on a broomstick are visual treats. The play’s fast paced narrative also ensures that youngsters are never in danger of being bored, whilst Mike Kenny’s clever script means that there is enough material to have adults chuckling along too.

If this is The Rep’s attempt to get children to engage with theatre then this production is definitely a step in the right direction. The only concern I had was that after Act One the children I saw in the interval seemed convinced that they were going to Winnie’s party. This is a testament to the fantastic work of the actors onstage, but I don’t necessarily
think the play delivers on this promise in Act Two. Although the second-half is entertaining, and the children delighted in seeing all of Winnie’s relatives join in with a range of hilarious party games, it felt a bit like we were bystanders when many youngsters wanted to be more active participants. At one stage Winnie asked, ‘Where are all my guests?’ To which a child excitedly replied, ‘We’re here!’ I think that a greater acknowledgement of this might have made for an even more fun evening, but my regret at not receiving a party hat doesn’t eclipse from the fact that this is a fun time out for parents and children alike, and a sign that when it comes to making work for a younger audience The Rep can mix it with the best of them.

Director: Liam Steel
Designer and Puppetry: Rachael Canning
Lighting Designer: Natasha Chivers
Composer: Mark Teitler
Winnie: Sophie Russell
Wilbur: Ben Thompson
Uncle Owen/ Wendy/ Playing Musical Director: Rob Castell
Wilma: Maimuna Memon
Aunty Alice/ Wanda: Anne Odeke
Cousin Cuthbert: Ed Thorpe

2017-04-09 12:04:50

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