Nottingham Playhouse, Tuesday 16th August, 2011
The stage adaptation of a children’s novel by Little Britain’s David Walliams has, like the book, more than a whiff of Roald Dahl about it. The book’s illustrations and the show’s publicity materials boast artwork by Dahl’s distinctive illustrator, Quentin Blake, and on first glance, the story has many Dahlian aspects, but I came away not with a smell in my nose, but with a taste in my mouth – as when one bites into a pie that is all pastry and no filling.
A story which centres on the relationship between a lonely 12 year old girl and a homeless man, Mr Stink throws up a few questions, some of them about our society, but there is something questionable about its central message: encouraging children to befriend a tramp who will then sort out your family’s woes. The eponymous tramp in this case is a well-spoken, ingratiating fellow, with vowels as rounded as his belly – there is no sign of super strength lager, drug addiction, mental illness or CRB check about him. He confronts his new friend’s bully with stern words and a belch in the face. He takes a bath in her mother’s ornamental pond. He is as full of fun as he is of fleas. Our heroine, Chloe, also has a friendship with the local newsagent, whose jokes are as out-of-date as the range of confectionery he purveys. I am worried about Chloe.
Chloe’s mother has pretensions of being elected as a right wing candidate in the local elections. Here the show touches on topical themes, caricaturising a certain type of middle class, Little Englander (as opposed to Little Britain). Rest assured she gets her come-uppance: after an embarrassing appearance on Question Time, her character does a volte face and resolves to be a better wife and mother.
With order restored, Mr Stink, like Shane in the old western, bids farewell. The show is in danger of lurching into sentimentalism at this point but because the characters are so broadly drawn and the emotions on the surface, it doesn’t quite get there. And that is the problem with the show as a whole. It doesn’t quite get there. “What are you laughing at?” asks the Duchess, Mr Stink’s puppet dog, to someone on the front row. No one in the auditorium had made a sound. More laughs are needed, especially in the first half – we are not revolted enough by Mr Stink neither is he all that endearing. It is as though the script has been sanitised by an overkill of Oust! The scratch-and-sniff booklet, in lieu of a programme, is good fun, an effective gimmick in a show poor in jokes and slapstick. The children in the audience watched and listened, seizing on the rare instances of physical comedy. It was the business of scratching off each new smell that gave rise to the biggest reactions. The whole show should have been that much fun.
The cast works hard, with puppets to handle and multiple characters to portray, and their energy keeps things moving along. The songs tend to slow things down again but the transforming doll-house style set and the lively characterisations make this a watchable, if ultimately bland, production.