REVIEW: Aesop’s Fables: 4-7 (Unicorn Theatre)

On the sweltering Saturday of British heatwave hell, Mummy felt smug at having had the foresight to book tickets to the beautifully air conditioned Unicorn Theatre. Mummy in no way accepts that this was pure coincidence because she booked the tickets months ago. Nor does Mummy acknowledge that this wasn’t even the date she had originally planned to see Aesop’s Fables, and that said ticket booking process created extra work for the lovely Samara at the Unicorn Box Office when Mummy realised that she had once again double-booked herself. (Mummy was about to commend the Unicorn Theatre for offering no-fee ticket exchanges up to 48 hours before the show, but has just discovered that this policy will be changing from 31 July to allow exchanges up to an hour beforehand for a £1.50 fee.) As ever, Mummy digresses. Where was I? Ah yes, the air conditioned oasis of Unicorn’s Weston Theatre….

There are currently two versions of Aesop’s Fables running at the Unicorn, one for ages 4-7 and another for 8-12 year olds, both directed by Justin Audibert & Rachel Bagshaw. As the keepers of 5 and 7 year olds we plumped for the former. Running at around an hour, it covers four famous fables, but not as you know them. Each has been rewritten for the modern audience by a different writer, performed by an enthusiastic cast of five.

In Playdate (with the tortoise and the hare) by EV Crowe, arguably the most famous of fables becomes a story about competitive parenting. It is set in the all too familiar context of an excruciatingly awkward playdate, in which the mums (unable to find any common ground for conversation) resort to drawing comparisons between the children. Insistent that they are not playing properly, they eventually encourage them to race towards a single snack. Without wishing to spoil the ending, it’s fair to say that it’s the parents in the audience who end up learning the lesson.

Kaite O-Reilly‘s Dog and Wolf stays truer to the traditional tale of The Dog and the Wolf, but plays with the story by re-imagining the interaction between the two animals several times over. This is probably the most thought-provoking of the tales, and although it conveys a more mature message, it is not quite as abstract as some of the stories. It is, however, quite wordy which makes it more suitable for children towards the top end of the suggested age range.

Next up is Frankie and the Crow by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig. This takes Aesop’s tale of The Crow and the Pitcher (a story purely about doing things little by little) and adds a message about discrimination and friendship. The moral of this story is great, and fart jokes seem to hit the mark for the children, but both Mummy and Mrs Mummy felt it was weakened by the addition of song. Those who know us as musical mad would no doubt be surprised by this, but we felt that the singing was quite forced and out of place, particularly when cards with the lyrics were held up to encourage audience participation. Given the target market for this production, it would be reasonable to assume that a large majority of the children in the audience could not actually read what was written on the cards.

The show finishes with Ant and Hop by Annie Siddons. Based on The Ant and the Grasshopper, this is a brilliantly entertaining tale of friendship, with the traditional moral about saving for the future becoming more a message about enjoying the moment. This was the show that the munchkins enjoyed the most, not least because it centered largely around cake. Quaver was, however, disappointed to learn that she was not allowed to finish the cake that was left over at the end!

Overall, this is a brilliant collection of stories for children, which takes traditional fables and gives them a contemporary twist. Each has its own style, but they are brought together by Lily Arnold‘s clever set design, which incorporates common elements that enable them to work as a cohesive whole. The result is visually impressive and thought-provoking theatre for young audiences which, like all the best children’s theatre, offers something for the adults too. Does anyone have an 8-12 year old they would like to lend Mummy so she can see the older version?…….

RATING: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).

Aesop’s Fables is running at the Unicorn Theatre until 4 August 2019. For more information and tickets see the Unicorn Website.