WINNIE AND WILBUR
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 5th April, 2017
The popular series of children’s books comes to the stage in this exuberant adaptation by writer Mike Kenny who captures the essential fun of author Valerie Thomas’s original while weaving in his own theatrical magic along the way.
Winnie is a witch who lives alone with her black cat Wilbur (a puppet expressively operated by Ben Thompson). She is surrounded by other cast members who appear as other characters, as narrators, and as ‘invisible’ forces that carry out her magic spells, and so Winnie’s ‘flap-top’ flies to her lap, for example. The devices are both simple and sophisticated, employing slow-motion and physical comedy to hilarious and inventive effect. A ride on a broomstick, Winnie’s bicycle, and a disappearing act are all carried off imaginatively to our surprise and delight. Director Liam Steel works his cast hard; the attention to detail and the timing are both impeccable in this larger-than-life, cartoon of a show.
Rachael Canning’s design takes its lead from Korky Paul’s illustrations, adding to the show’s authenticity as an adaptation.
Leading the piece in the role of Winnie is Sophie Russell, in a charming and hilarious portrayal. Winnie may be a grown woman but she wears her emotions on her sleeve in an endearingly childlike manner. Consistently funny, Russell is a joy to watch.
She is supported by an equally skilled ensemble. Rob Castell provides musical accompaniment onstage as well as appearing as Uncle Owen and, funniest, Winnie’s sister Wendy. Anne Odeke is a hoot as Aunty Alice, threatening Uncle Owen with dire consequences when she gets him home. Ed Thorpe amuses as Winnie’s supposed nemesis, Cousin Cuthbert and Maimuna Memon adds to the fun as sister Wilma. The cast only leave the stage for quick costume changes. The jokes are rapid fire, the songs (by Marc Teitler) are tuneful pastiches with witty lyrics, and it all adds up to a magical event that is never short of amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny.
Wonderful silly fun for children and adults alike – and it’s interesting to see you don’t need innuendo or grown-up gags to keep parents and childless reviewers like me engaged, enchanted and entertained.
I have definitely fallen under Winnie’s spell.