It was as the on-stage doorbell rang for the fourth time that my two-year-old daughter, atop my knee in the semi-dark of The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre, turned to me with a mixture of optimism and desperation to query: “The tiger come now?” Thankfully, it did.
David Wood’s Olivier-nominated production of Judith Kerr’s beloved book makes its pre-school audience wait a wriggle-inducingly long time for a glimpse of its key protagonist. Thoughtful set design had transported the children into Kerr’s domestic scene immediately on arrival in the theatre, but the side effect of this was to generate the not unreasonable expectation that a tiger would be arriving imminently. Had the eponymous big cat not been behind the door at the fourth time of asking, following jolly but dispensable cameos from Daddy, the milkman and the postie, things might have got ugly.
But now it was teatime, and there the tiger was at last. After a panto-style “he’s behind you” session during which Sophie and her mother were allegedly unable to spot the enormous orange feline in their kitchen (this had younger patrons rolling in the aisles), the beast dutifully set about demolishing every last scrap of food and drink in the house. It did not, however, talk – the suave beast in the book invites himself in with a very British “excuse me” – and some of the charm of Kerr’s bizarre afternoon tea is lost in the absence of the tiger’s original loquacious gentility. This cat, instead, engages his delighted audience in a high energy “tiger-obics” dance session (“swing your tail” etc) before disappearing from whence he came.
The problem with this show, ultimately, is that the tiger comes to tea relatively briefly. Sure, it eats Sophie out of house and home, deploying some crowd-pleasing sleight of hand to make a fridge full of food disappear. But all too soon it takes its leave, leaving the girl (actually played by the adult Abbey Norman) and her parents with the better part of an hour to fill.
The cast do their best, with megawatt smiles and protracted songs about sausage and chips, while the twinkling stars that appear when the family go out to a café for supper brought delight to the young crowd. They – unlike me – were entirely un-irked by the flashes of old-fashioned sexism that have been imported from the original 1968 book, such as Mother worrying about “Daddy’s beer”, or by the high octane additions to what is in fact quite a gentle and quiet story. For me, that story felt stretched by the effort of transformation into a 55-minute show. For my daughters, it was tiger-obics all the way home.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea is at The Lowry until July 30, 2017 and is on nationwide tour. More info: www.thelowry.com, The Tiger Who Came To Tea Live | UK Tour