What a joy to be back watching some first-class puppet theatre at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington, albeit it in the more-easy-to-socially-distance studio. This adaptation of the Smartest Giant in Town – the popular Julia Donaldson picture book, illustrated by Axel Scheffler – is a perfect choice for theatre-starved under 7s.
Judith Hope’s puppet design is a triumph and the large glassy eyes on the strokeably furry puppets capture the magic of Scheffler’s illustrations perfectly. The giant is created by a large, over-sized head on the imposing torso of actor Duane Gooden. The illusion of enormity is further compounded with the use of semi-circular rostra hills and small wooden model houses so your brain is tricked into seeing a giant. There is more trickery in the garments that are shed and retrieved to help various animals in their plights: a tie literally becomes a scarf for a giraffe and a man-sized sock becomes a fox-sized sleeping bag.
If you don’t know the book, the story follows a giant who begins wearing a “gown” (so that it can be rhymed with town): a scruffy smock and sandals. He discovers a shop selling giant-sized clothes, manned with charisma and energy by actors Lizzie Wort and Gilbert Taylor, who also play all the other puppet characters in the story. He buys himself an outfit, but is only momentarily the “smartest giant in town” before he starts to meet animals in distress and find ways to help them with items of his new clothes.
The little vignettes with each glorious animal puppet are brought to life with song and simple props – a patch of blue carpet is the puddle that fox drops his sleeping bag in, a stretch of blue fabric the water that goat crosses. Barb Jungr’s lyrics are perhaps a little less sophisticated than Donaldson’s words: the giraffe needs a scarf when it’s icy, to keep him warm and spicy, but (he regrets) they are pricey. But the tunes are simple and the children in the audience were bobbing along.
At the end, with his trousers falling down, the giant returns to the shop to reclaim his old gown and sandals, only to find the animals have bought him a crown to thank him for his kindness. The show ends on an additional moral: “You don’t need to be smart, to be smart”, to which my five-year-old jumped up and said. “Yes, I’m smart, and look at what I’m wearing!” So the show had obviously held her attention to the very end of the 55-minutes.