The Story of the Little Gentleman has the makings of a Disney Pixar classic. It’s got all the key ingredients – a lonely man with a penchant for balloons, an enthusiastic anthropomorphised animal, a blossoming friendship thrust into jeopardy and a big reunion scene. Though Catherine Wheels’ latest production offers no big surprises, it presents a humorous and heartwarming story.
Struggling to find friends in a new city, the Little Gentleman (Peter Collins) initially barks up the wrong tree, printing up posters and approaching passers-by to no avail. If only he’d known that dogs are a man’s best friend – no matter, he’s quickly brought up to speed by the ever-exuberant Dog (played by the fantastically facially-versatile Isabelle Joss). Dog’s initial affections are treat-based, his nose always on the hunt for Gentleman’s biscuit-barrel, but over time the two develop a genuine bond.
The production is most successful when exploiting the suspense created by the set. A huge crate is parked in the middle of the playing space, with the venue’s address freshly written across the front. Where has it come from? What – or who – is inside? Just as the audience are developing full-blown conspiracy theories, items begin to pop out – a rubbish bag from one corner, a tiny cup and saucer from another, a floating balloon from the top. Each new item prompts a fresh round of excited squeals, squeals tinged with more than a hint of gleeful mock-terror. Theatre Lovett’s The Girl Who Forgot To Sing Badly begins very similarly – with a huge crate on stage – but ramps up the mystery and plays on the audience’s enjoyment of being a little bit scared. Admittedly, Theatre Lovett go to extremes – smoke billows out, there are flashing lights, a dangling rope hangs just above – which is not necessarily appropriate for The Story of the Little Gentleman. But given the unequalled engagement the crate creates, even more could be made of it, particularly the big reveal – when the Little Gentleman opens his heart, and his home, up to his new friend Dog.
As Scotland’s most prolific producer of children’s theatre, Catherine Wheels are a safe pair of hands with a firm grasp on what works and what doesn’t. The Story of the Little Gentleman is charming, if not daring.
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