My inner child – never far from the surface – was well and truly unleashed at Bristol Old Vic’s gloriously enjoyable The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Re-telling the tale of the bored boy shepherd alongside a host of other Aesop’s fables, this charming and gentle show takes Michael Morpurgo’s versions of the stories as its starting point. Director Sally Cookson has form at BOV – she directed last summer’s Treasure Island and BOV’s Christmas offering, Peter Pan. This show is less spectacular than either of those, although that’s no bad thing. It’s an altogether more meandering, piece.
The fables are not the easiest thing to make lively on stage, due to their necessarily episodic structure and lack of a through-narrative. Cookson, along with dramaturg Adam Peck, has cleverly used the story of the boy who cried wolf as a framing device, splitting it into three parts which open the first half and the second half, and end the show. It just about works; it’s a slender story to stretch so far, but the sheer joie de vivre emanating from the cast, along with neat musical links, allow them to get away with it.
Given that the show is marketed at ages seven plus, though, I was expecting a darker show. This is isn’t a complaint as such – it’s a giggly, entertaining evening – but I felt that the younger children in the audience enjoyed it more than the world-weary seven and eight year olds in front of us. (“That’s just cruel to sheep!” one exclaimed when the bored shepherd boy piled his beanbag sheep into a tower…) There’s nothing wrong with a show that’s all about fun, of course, but since some of the fables are kind of dark (small child eaten by wolf, “friends” who leave one of their number to be mauled by a bear, guts ripped out of the goose which lays the golden eggs), it might have been nice if this was hinted at more during the show.
The music, played at various points by all of the cast, beautifully underscores all of the action and keeps the show moving. Benji and Will Bower are the driving force behind the music – Benji as composer and multi-instumentalist, and Will as a cracking percussionist. All five of the cast have fine voices, and a beautifully sung re-telling of the fable of The Sun and the Wind is one of the loveliest moments of the production. The slower tales are, surprisingly, some of the nicest: the pace is brought right down for the tale of The Tortoise and the Hare – slow and steady wins the race – and it works wonderfully, mainly thanks to Lucy Tuck’s adorable tortoise and Chris Bianchi’s boisterous and bumptious hare. Tuck in particular is a delight throughout, with a hugely engaging stage presence and a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
Music and singing mark the transitions between the tales, bridging the gaps and also stopping the morals at the end of story from becoming too preachy. They are not made into a joke, quite, but they are made humourous, which is a good move from Cookson. No-on wants to be moralised at in the sunshine. The outdoor setting (BOV has a deal with the council to take over part of the street outside the theatre in the summer, effectively giving it an extra auditorium for eight weeks) is perfect for these tales, and you won’t find many better ways to spend a sunny evening in Bristol this summer than to head down to King Street for a glass of Pimm’s and a show. It’s worth it just to see Benji Bower’s hilarious wolf ripping apart poor Tom Wainwright’s tiny marshmallow sheep…
The Boy Who Cried Wolf… and Other Stories from Michael Morpurgo’s Aesop’s Fables is at Bristol Old Vic until 1 September. For more information and tickets, visit the Bristol Old Vic’s website.