Review - Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear - The Musical at the National Theatre
If you want a good example of eclectic programming, consider this: earlier this year I was sat in the Dorfman watching Downstate, a play about a social house for a group of sex offenders. Last night, the same theatre was full of kids as they watched fat Gary Wilmot float to the sky in a hot air balloon.
I may have left one show harrowed, but luckily, that was not the case with Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear.
The new musical is based on Andy Stanton’s children’s novels which, unusually, does not take its title from a relatable hero. Mr Gum, a grotesque Fagin-Del Boy hybrid villain, the bumbling Cockney at the centre of the story, after he coerces Polly’s friendly bear Padlock to dance for a paying public.
Set to new songs by Jim Fortune, Stanton brings this fantastical world to the stage for the first time as the loose storyline threads through a cascade of randomness and wonder. There’s no doubt this show is a lot of fun. Perhaps, too much.
The show has some real strengths. Georgia Lowe’s costumes and sets are a lot of fun, and her giant Bear costume made from recycled cardboard boxes is really lovely. The moment when the theatre’s ceiling is covered with hanging umbrellas opening above our heads adds a moment of spectacle to the show too.
And the performances are strong, too. Steve Furst’s Mr Gum is a slightly restrained panto villain, while as sidekick Billy, Helena Lymbery seems to emanate fun. Her comic performance at times reminded me of Kathy Burke’s Linda in Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, with the same sense of innocent ignorance. And with a wealth of experience on the panto circuit, Gary Wilmot knows exactly how to deliver a kids joke without condescending to his audience.
However, Stanton and Fortune do seem to stuff the second half with unnecessary songs. While a lot of them are fun at the time – especially the playful two-syllable number in the first half – there aren’t any fixating earworms that’ll be in your head when you wake up in the morning. There is a dance we’re encouraged to join in with, but it just seemed a little too twisty to get first time.
Stanton’s humour does shine through the piece though, including several fun meta-jokes – including “The Saddest Song in the Show” – which make the piece feel like a great introduction to theatre for kids. But focussed a little more as a 90-minute piece, and this could have been a memorable favourite.
Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 31st August.
Photo credit: The Other Richard