In an auditorium filled with young children accompanied by their parents, The Grumpiest Boy in the World did not disappoint either audience. Zachary Briddling is ‘awfully middling’ and Tom Wilson gave a convincing portrayal of a seven-year old frustrated with his own ordinariness, whilst his mum (Ruth Rogers) ably demonstrated Little Prince-type adult incomprehension. Zachary’s picture, obviously of him as a king atop a blue lion (!), is interpreted by his mum as a sweet little girl on a horse! (Grownups just don’t understand, do they?) and, humiliatingly, the pinnacle of artistic recognition is to have his masterpiece ‘stuck on the fridge’.
Whilst some of the subtlety of the individual’s struggle with mediocrity might have been lost on the youngest members of the audience, the colourful characters, catchy songs and artwork were not.
My nine-year old assistant reviewer particularly liked the wobbly bird with unfeasibly stretchy legs and the singing cacti with multiple Zachary flowers on their tips - and he could even remember some of the ‘Zachary song’ the next morning. The trumpet-playing was ‘epic’ and the TV screen set with a roller to change the backdrop was a fun idea which seemed to be much appreciated. Speaking to creative producer Alex Kanefsky afterwards, it was clear that much of the artwork had emerged from the Paper Balloon Theatre Company’s workshops with children, so it was actually designed by children themselves, which was not just a nice touch but probably a huge part of the appeal to the under-10s.
Despite the small cast of three, the puppetry of other characters, such as the giant represented by his huge feet and arms and the (very) hairy girl were designed to delight, whilst the inhabitants of the land of the Grumps were unquestionably some of the grumpiest grumps in the world, though not of course as grumpy as young Zachary. Rhys Jennings was particularly funny as Zachary’s opponent in the ‘Grump off’.
Creative, imaginative and making good use of some theatrical staples such as giants and a scary voice emanating from a dark cave, the production nevertheless subverted the traditional and was able to surprise, with Zachary unimpressed with ‘impending doom’ and the giant more interested in Zachary’s watch than in eating him. Of a length appropriate to a junior attention span, this was a short and snappy piece of entertainment which managed very successfully to cheer up a chilly afternoon.