David Walliams is not my favourite children’s author; I’d just like to put that out there. They might be linked by the illustrations of the legendary Quentin Blake, but Walliams is no Roald Dahl. Dahl of course had his faults, but there’s no denying the originality and magic contained in his stories. Walliams, I find, lacks that entirely.
His popular children’s book, Mr Stink, has been adapted for stage, and centres on Chloe Crumb (Lucy-Mae Beacock), a little girl who feels very alone in the world. That is, until she meets Mr Stink (Bradley Davis), the local homeless man. They forge a friendship, Chloe accidentally becomes an advocate for anti-homelessness after putting him up in their shed and feeding him dozens of sausages, and Mr Stink somehow becomes internationally famous after an appearance on the local news.
While any story that promotes thoughtfulness, kindness and empathy in children is a winner in my book, not every homeless person is a Lord-in-disguise with a tragic backstory, and they deserve help and kindness too. Mr Stink also ruins itself by relying heavily on gross stereotypes; particularly with the women of the story. There’s a trinity of Horrible Women: Mother Crumb (Belinda McGuirk) who’s a nasty domineering matriarch/Thatcher-esque politician, Chloe’s sister Annabel (Courtney Dayes) who is a sort of snide ‘perfect’ older child, and Chloe’s bully Rosamund (Bethany Hamlin) complete with cliché ‘burns’ and schoolgirl bully finger snaps. These characters in particular just seem so lazy and dated to me, and I’m not the first to criticise Walliams’ stories. Food writer and activist Jack Monroe labelled them as “sneering classist fatshaming grim nonsense” and while some disagreed with her, many didn’t.
But none of this is the fault of cast and company at the Chickenshed Theatre, and the production itself, looking past the material, is seamless. So much is done with very little, and cast including Beackcock as Chloe, and Cara McInnany as ensemble bring some (I expect) much-needed joy to the children in the audience. There’s lots of silliness and fun, including a whole number dedicated to aforementioned sausages, that is perfect for the holiday season.
I’m saddened then that for me, the production is tainted by such pants material, which doesn’t seem to truly match the ethos of the Chickenshed for me. The story of course has a happy ending, but the way in which we get there is less than ideal. It seems that David Walliams ought to try to take a leaf out of Mr Stink’s book, and consider practising some more thought-out “unimaginable kindness”.
Mr Stink is playing until 10 January. For more information and tickets, visit the Chickenshed website.