When creating stage adaptations of popular children’s books, theatre-makers have to decide how true they want to be to the original story. Appropriately enough, this production of Burglar Bill steals everything from the 1977 text – even the book itself! Acting as narrator for much of the play, Burglar Betty (Leah Kirby) is rarely seen without a thieved copy of the picturebook, retrieved from the depths of her swag bag, and a clever framing device allows her to read directly from its pages. Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s classic work is never far away in a script that is often word-for-word identical to the book, a decision well-justified by the affection that so many children feel for it. Innovative enough to justify the staging but authentic enough to please the crowd, Pied Piper Theatre delivers a satisfying tribute to a family favourite.
In a show that looks and sounds so similar to the bestseller, Burglar Bill himself is the biggest diversion from the page. Actor Chris Yarnell makes for a younger, lither, more agile protagonist, though this works well when Bill is creeping through the shadows and sneaking into houses (as a young reader, I always thought the rather rotund illustrated version of Bill would surely have problems slinking around undiscovered – even his nose looks too big to fit through a window!) Other than his appearance, though, this is the same robber we know and love – the cosy, cuddly crook who’s content to steal cups of tea and marmalade on toast.
The already homely Bill is exposed to another layer of domesticity, after pinching a big brown box with little holes in it. Inside is a baby that needs clean clothes, a changed nappy, and food it won’t refuse (the little one does not share Bill’s love for marmalade toast). The interactions between child and adult prove very popular; under Roman Stefanski’s puppetry direction, the baby’s fussiness about food and determination to crawl off the kitchen table draw the biggest laughs.
Though fairly reverential to the original book, the piece does play around with some of the staging, including a scene with Burglar Bill using stolen goods as a dressing up box. There’s also original music from Julian Butler, which maximises Bill’s standing as a romantic lead. In particular, ‘I will steal the moon for you’ is a memorably sweet duet, and it’s hard not to think of West Side Story as Bill’s break-ins are accompanied by finger-clicking, balletic movement, and skinny black jeans.
There’s some nice audience interaction, both intentional – lots of unified ‘Ssshhhh’ing as even the narrator has to be secretive and stealthy to hide from the cops – and spontaneous – the audience enjoying the chance to say Bill’s famous catchphrases aloud. In fact, in the performance I watched, this contributed to an unexpected conclusion when a young audience member quoted the story’s ending verbatim before the actor had a chance to. Burglar Bill is of course a story about a kleptomaniac, so there was always going to be theft involved, but who could have predicted a child would steal the show!
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