Burglar Bill

Review written by Flossie Waite & Luke Billingham
A Pied Piper Theatre production

Reviewed at Watermans Arts Centre
Touring nationally in Spring 2017

For ages 3+

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.

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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.

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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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One response to “Burglar Bill

  1. Pingback: Twitter accounts every children’s theatre lover should follow |·

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