Not Now, Bernard

Not Now, Bernard
By Flossie Waite
A Unicorn Production
Unicorn Theatre
10.30am, 8th March 2014
Ages 2+

Rhys Rusbatch as Monster in Not Now, Bernard. Image by Manuel Harlan

Is this production genius, or is it terrible? Initially, it seems the former. Not Now, Bernard stays true to the aesthetic of David McKee’s picturebook. It makes brave decisions, beginning with Bernard’s (Rhys Rusbatch) understated entrance as he sits on stage, bored and fiddling about with his shoes while the audience chatter, until he naturally – gradually -catches their attention. But this unusual approach to children’s theatre, combined with palpable excitement from the audience for a glimpse of the monster, meant this felt like “Waiting for Godot, Jnr”. The playful atmosphere of the book was lost, and the production became more bizarre than brilliant.

Bored at home, Bernard tries to alert his parents that there’s a monster at the bottom of the garden who is going eat him, but they are always too busy. Unfortunately, this means that the monster at the bottom of the garden does eat Bernard, then rampages around the house, before going to sleep in Bernard’s bed – and Bernard’s oblivious parents still don’t notice.

Not Now, Bernard is a classic picturebook, loved by generations through the 30 years it has been in print. It is also a rare beast – a picturebook with a sad ending, unashamedly a bit disconcerting throughout but in a thrilling way. It offers dark humour and multiple possible meanings.  It plays with a dynamic recognised by families up and down the country – inquisitive, well-meaning, pestering children, and busy, well-meaning, exasperated parents. But the gentle dark comedy and the subtlety of the text are lost in this production, where metaphors are forced into reality. Rather than the monster potentially being a naughty Bernard (the book leaves readers to discover or decide upon this dimension for themselves), the decision is made – the monster is Bernard, dressed up in a monster costume.

Mum and Dad are huge wooden, 2D figures revealed from behind screens, repetitively busying themselves – Dad hammering a nail, Mum turning a tap on and off. The production is almost wordless, except for lines narrated from the book such as the famous ‘”Not now Bernard”’. Kudos for sticking to the book’s text, but with no inflection in the narrator’s voice, the parents are not exasperated, but robotic. They’re not busy, they’re plain awful parents. Rather than a slightly bored child playing up, this production presents Bernard as neglected by these cold, cardboard adults.

Too much time was spent in this production messing around. Bernard messed about through sheer boredom, the monster messed about because he was a monster. There was no character progression, and there’s only so much jumping off chairs and over televisions that an audience can take (particularly when parents all around are firmly whispering to their children never to do that at home). A decision needed to be made about audience interaction – you can’t invite ‘he’s behind you’ moments to just ignore them, but end the production with a knowing wink to the audience. Bernard frequently wandered on and off stage. No one knew when the play had ended. The whole production was a bit messy.

It’s entirely understandable why someone would want to adapt Not Now Bernard – it’s so visual, it’s style so memorable, that it feels like it would work really well. Hats off to director Ellen McDougall for sticking so closely to the book, and to designer James Button for creating a set that tried hard to stay true to the pictures we love. However, at times this felt like a piece of absurdist theatre being shown to an audience of toddlers, leaving everyone a bit baffled.

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One response to “Not Now, Bernard

  1. Reblogged this on Theatre and Tea and commented:
    Now, I agree with many of the points of this review. Not Now Bernard may be one of the few children’s stories that doesn’t end in a notorious Happily Ever After, but a lot more fun could have been had with this stage adaptation from Unicorn Theatre.

    Bernard is living in a boring grown up world where nobody pays him any attention, even when he’s trying to let them know there’s a monster in the garden and it’s going to eat him! With Bernard’s parents shown as mechanical paintings straight from the picture book, Bernard really is alone in an otherwise 2D world and although the story itself is spot on, maybe actors could have been used instead of a monotone audio tape-esque voice over. Echoed by one of the honest critics in the audiences who just wanted to know ‘why aren’t they real people Dad?’.

    Although the majority of the young audience members seemed entertained by a big purple monster who can’t fit through doors, and Bernard playing games with his shoes, for a short production the pace needed to be a fair bit quicker with a larger injection of cheekiness. A few grizzles and cries for relatives proved there was a scare-factor involved, but the audience seemed a little restless to really have their attention captured into the story and performance.

    On the other hand, maybe I’m just a little old at twenty one?!

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