This review originally appeared on Australian Stage Online
ed Prior’s children’s series, Grug, has been loved by tens of thousands of Australian children since originally published over the period from the late 70s to the early 90s. Republished in 2009, and now with the help of Windmill Performing Arts and QPAC’s Out Of The Box Festival, a new generation of children are being exposed to Grug and his adventures.
Nathan O’Keefe, Lucas Stibbard and Jude Henshall operate the puppets in the show – designed by Jonathan Oxlade and remaining faithful to Prior’s illustrations – and all give delightful performances. The show, directed by Sam Haren, draws from several of Prior’s books, starting with telling of the creation of Grug (he began life as the top of a Burrawong tree which fell to the ground, and grew stripes, legs and a face) and following Grug as he has fun and solves simple problems.
Stories included Grug and His Garden, where Grug discovers a snail eating his garden, so he plants more so they can both be happy; Grug Goes Fishing, including a very funny sequence in which a goggled O’Keefe operates fish, seaweed and a crab; Grug Plays Soccer, where Grug and friend Cara the carpet snake (operated by the wonderfully expressive Henshall) play a game; and Grug Learns to Dance, in which the children in the audience all learn “The Grug”.
A simple narrative structure is used to introduce each story: O’Keefe is delivering parcels to Grug when he discovers they are all empty. So one-by-one he takes some items from a bag which seemingly belongs to an audience member, places them in the parcel, and they magically transform into the catalyst for the story: water from a drink bottle and a small toy fish become a fishing-rod, an ordinary apple grows into a giant apple. Similarly, the individual stories all end with the same structure, as Grug goes to sleep after his adventure.
This simple device meant the stories were all clearly defined, and more than that, it allowed constant surprise and anticipation as to what would come next.
The short show started late as late arrivals drifted in, causing some of the children who had been waiting to become restless, but once the show started they were enamored. Three-year-old Ruby couldn’t sit still through the show – not for being bored, but because she was straining to get closer to see what Grug and her personal favourite, the snake Cara, were doing. At the end of the show, the children were all invited to come a bit closer and say goodbye to Grug and his friends.
Windmill has again created a show in which children can wonderfully discover the magic and the fun and play in theatre. A show for Windmill’s youngest audience, one- to five-year-olds, the adults in the audience were having almost as much fun as the kids – both through watching the play, and watching the children become engrossed in the story and the characters. And, due to demand, a special performance for “original” fans of the books has been added to the Adelaide season: I certainly enjoyed rediscovering a childhood friend on stage.
Grug plays at the Forge Theatre, Maryatville High School, until April 24th, followed by a season in Studio 1, QPAC, from June 8-13th as a part of the Out Of The Box Festival.