Not Now, Bernard

Reviewed by Flossie Waite
A Unicorn production
For ages 3-6
Playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 1st July

There’s nothing quite like the first few moments of a production created or directed by Sarah Argent. In Luna, about a little boy who is scared of the dark, a rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is spontaneously amplified by all the young people watching, casting magic over the show. As an imagined baby is settled to sleep in Baby Show, a respectful hush descends over the tiny audience of infants aged 6-18 months. These moments set the tone, opening the door to the world Argent has created and welcoming the audience inside.

Photo: Camilla Greenwell

Not Now, Bernard begins with a haunting version of Stardust (originally made popular by Nat King Cole). Full of wistfulness and longing, the song is dreamy, nostalgic and a bit eery: the perfect introduction to an adaptation that doesn’t just stay true to the aesthetic of David McKee’s iconic picturebook, but to its whole vibe. Not Now, Bernard is the thrillingly odd, darkly humorous and, as the Unicorn’s blurb says, ‘sometimes melancholic’ story of Bernard, who cannot get his preoccupied parents to acknowledge him, or the monster in the garden.

Natalie Pryce’s set, an ‘open-plan’ home, reveals each of the family members in their isolation: Dad (Ben Adams) flicking through TV channels, Mum (Bea Holland) doing housework, and Bernard (Guy Rhys) reading in his room. For Mum and Dad, every interaction is just an interruption – they have important things to be doing, like watching telly or hanging a painting. When ignoring Bernard doesn’t work – they stare straight through him as he plays with his rocket ship – they respond with increasing exasperation. “There’s a monster in the garden and he’s going to eat me!” Bernard warns. “Not now, Bernard” they respond. So Bernard goes into the garden, and soon the only thing left of him is a solitary shoe.

Photo: Camilla Greenwell

The genius of McKee’s text is its ambiguity: is Bernard eaten? Or is he, as Argent puts it, “consumed by monstrous feelings”, eventually acting up after constant inattention? The production finds clever ways to capture this, constantly blurring the line between reality and imagination: while Bernard’s home is realistically rendered, the garden is David McKee’s illustrations made 3-dimensional, with their vivid colouring and surreal quality. And doesn’t the furry purple monster look quite a lot like… Bernard?

Not Now, Bernard employs sonic storytelling as much as visual. Bernard’s home life is set to the songs of the ‘50s, as his Mum and Dad stick to pretty gendered roles and a hands-off approach to parenting. Bernard’s frustration sounds completely different, as he mutters to himself in the garden over Owen Crouch’s sparky compositions. And then there’s the monster who, it turns out, loves classical musical. There’s something immediately endearing about the fluffy monster’s rampage through the house being accompanied by full and glorious orchestration, tipping his naughtiness from scary to funny and silly.

Despite throwing his dinner on the floor and biting Dad, Bernard’s parents remain too distracted, or uninterested, to notice they are living with a monster, and that’s what we’re left with: no tidy resolution or lesson learnt. Not Now, Bernard is complex and uncomfortable: yes, it seems to be a warning about parental neglect – what is more important, it asks, a perfectly placed pot plant or playing with your child? But it is also a truthful exploration of what being a child can feel like – the aching boredom of unfilled hours, being overwhelmed by feelings that are difficult to articulate but easy to act out. When I was little, Not Now, Bernard fascinated and thrilled me by going to places many picturebooks were unwilling to go. With this adaptation, that really captures its unsettling, sophisticated spirit, I feel exactly the same.

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