By Francesca Young
Two artists in paint-splodged white coats busily cut and draw as members of the audience find their seats and settle down. When the play begins, these two bring Quentin Blake’s eccentric characters to life, splatting paint onto Mrs Armitage and her beloved dog, Breakspear, projected onto the backdrop.
Quentin Blake’s instantly recognisable artwork is used throughout Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave, just one of the many ways the production, adapted by Adam Barnard and staged by Ga Ga Theatre Company—and touring across London until the end of this month—stays true to the original award-winning picture book. Blake’s trademark humour comes across in offbeat asides—“Put ketchup on me and eat me,” says the ‘hot dog’—and there’s a wonderfully psychedelic 1970s scene animating Breakspear’s dream when he becomes a flying seagull.
An engaging play for young people—ideal for under 7s— there’s enough audience participation to keep little ones engaged. One lucky youngster is asked up to the stage to inflate a desert island. And everyone joins in singing ‘Waiting for the Wave to Come’ as well as the crucial moment we need to shout, “Look out for the drowning girl!”
But before that, there’s the big wave to catch. After some discussion—a bicycle ride? a car drive, perhaps?—our hot, down-spirited duo decide to go to the beach and swim (well, swim-dance) out to sea to Beach Boys–style music.
While waiting for the wave, Mrs Armitage swims to shore on a stream of missions: to find a float for her tired hound; to answer her portable telephone, which looks distinctly old-fashioned; to pick up a car horn (even though she has seven at home already); and get ‘light snacks’—a lovely section bringing the pictures from the book to life.
There’s clever use of projections and props helping our cast of two switch between characters—sometimes they’re artists, other times Mrs Armitage and her dog. Occasionally they pull down the stage curtain to ‘interrupt this performance to conduct a scientific investigation’, or explain that a stuffed monkey is, in fact, a girl called Miranda.
Asked for their favourite part, our group of six-year-olds said, “The bombs away bit!” (snigger), when the seagulls poop on Breakspear’s head. Of course, they would pick up on the brief bit of toilet humour!
For adults, there’s much to enjoy—the actors do a fantastic job of swimming, surfing and embodying Quentin Blake’s heroic and eccentric surfers. Grown-ups can also appreciate the slick scene changes and the three clear messages: plan an adventure; help others in trouble; and always, always head to the sea when you’re feeling blue.
You can catch Mrs Armitage and the Big Wave until the end of October. The Royal Albert Hall showing is sold out, but, as of this writing, tickets remain for Clapham Picturehouse, Abbey Theatre in St Albans and Chelsea Curzon. For tickets and more information, visit Ga Ga Theatre’s website.