For several years now, the Tom Gates books by Liz Pichon have been all the rage in primary schools across the land. Tom is your average schoolboy, eager to hang out with his friends, draw and make music, while finding school and family life as tricky as any of us do. The books are bright, breezy fun, popping with illustrations supposedly doodled by Tom himself. Given how successful they’ve been, it was perhaps inevitable that they’d transfer to another medium. As it turns out, though, theatre was a curious one.
The books are all about turning the travails of a child’s real life into fizzy, creative entertainment, and parts of Tom Gates Live on Stage!, which hit Manchester Opera House last week, do match up to that, but others don’t. Tom’s world is realised on stage using a system of back projections onto a single multi-purpose set, which brings some of the books’ doodle-heavy aesthetic alive. There’s heavy use of a musical score which adds a sense of propulsion, too. The whole thing is fast and visual, which suits the spirit of Pichon’s tales, but somehow there’s a void at the centre of it.
Essentially, the staging of the show is much more inventive and appealing than the production itself. The plot, about Tom overcoming hurdles to be allowed to go on a school trip in the run-up to a big family do, is weedy and bitty, hinging on the repeated motif of a class achievement chart. The stage incarnation has been co-written by Pichon herself, alongside director Neal Foster – indeed, it’s now available in prose form as Spectacular School Trip (Really), the 17th Tom Gates book so far – but the dialogue here is often flat, and sadly the laughs are far fewer and further between than they should be.
Odder still, Tom himself comes across as a morose moaner, quite unlike the hero of the books. Matthew Chase plays him in an agreeably unassuming way, but it’s a rather thankless role. As the focal point of the show, the character is seriously short on charisma and energy. Elsewhere in the cast, though, Justin Davies generates some sparks as Tom’s pal Norman, as does Ashley Collins as Tom’s aggravating nemesis Marcus.
There’s a music-fuelled climax which lends a pleasingly panto-esque air, and young fans of the books present do seem to be consistently entertained by the show, but never outright thrilled or stimulated. It’s hard to pitch something just right for that specific audience who are far too big for The Gruffalo but still too young for anything too grown-up or gritty. The Tom Gates books have made a very good fist of doing that, but to be honest this stage version leaves much to be desired.