Production company Tall Stories are experts in translating children's classics from page to stage, and this is one of several shows based on the work of dream team Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. Lauren Scott-Berry's charmingly cheeky and intrepid Mouse travels through the Deep Dark Wood in search of a nut, and on the way encounters three amusing, dangerous and above all, musical, predators, while in the background lurks the spectre of the imagined - or very real? - Gruffalo.
The three actors do a grand job of maintaining the energy of the show, which is broadly faithful to the original but adds songs, jokes, back chat and plenty of physical comedy. Alastair Chisholm switches fluidly from jovial fox, to military owl, to sociable snake, and Aaron Millard embodies the unlovable Gruffalo with a certain affecting pathos and brings an arch humour and a dancer's grace to the role of storyteller.
The young audience seemed very happy, gamely roaring along on demand and taking that innocently vicious delight in the misfortunes of others that we all look back on mistily as one of the charms of childhood. This was the largest theatre production my four-year-old had attended, and it took her a little while to understand the theatrical conventions and customs of audience participation at play. She whispered a couple of minutes in that it was 'amazing' and thoroughly enjoyed the show, though a lot of the subtler humour and characterisation were beyond her.
What was most impressive was how the whole experience had been geared toward the comfort and enjoyment of a diminutive audience. Step stools were provided in the toilets to help small people wash their hands, programmes were age appropriate, traditional sweets and small juice bottles were on sale alongside the usual ice cream and fizzy drinks, and booster seats were offered at the entrance - and then again just before curtain up in case anyone had been missed. Small touches, perhaps, but unexpected and very much appreciated.
I've always felt a little sceptical about what seems to be the prevailing attitude to children's theatre: that the juvenile imagination is so potent that a couple of adults wearing a bit of face paint and mops on their heads can evoke another world sufficiently to captivate their audience. But kids do love storytelling, and this group really seemed to get into the novelty of an immersive collective experience that had an all-important focus on humour and music.
The enduring popularity of The Gruffalo is in some measure down to a combination of simplicity and completeness, which I think is almost impossible to recreate in an hour-long stage show, but if you accept that this is a slightly more complex production inspired by the original text, and that your child will without question be as excited by their ice cream as by the artistic achievements on stage, this is well worth a trip.