What is it about comedians writing books for children? David Baddiel, Ade Edmonson and Russell Brand have all had a go; David Walliams has made several careers out of it. And although I was dimly aware that Julian Clary had put pen to paper for an audience that would not normally be in his sights, I hadn’t realised that his story cycle about wildlife having secret lives in suburbia now extends to eight volumes. The first of these, published in 2015, has recently played at the Unicorn Theatre as their festive offering in an adaptation by the author and musical collaborator Simon Weston. It is now online for a limited period and is well worth a visit.
The Bolds are a family of hyenas who have left behind their natural habitat on the Serengeti to take up residence in a Teddington semi, adopting the identities of Fred and Emilia who they see perish in an accident while on holiday in Tanzania. According to the story line it is not an altogether unusual state of affairs for animals to do this – apparently there’s a well known pair of giraffes who act as shelf fillers in Waitrose. However, next door neighbour, permanently grumpy Mr McNumpty, has his suspicions especially when he catches a glimpse of an otherwise hidden tail as the Bold children/cubs, Betty and Bobby, play in the adjoining garden. Perhaps the family are not so secure as they think they are and when they set out to rescue aging hyena, Uncle Tony, from a safari park it looks like their cover could well be blown.
It’s a crazy premise but you soon find yourself buying into the conceit because it is so well done. Apart from the tails there’s no real attempt to replicate the physical appearance of the hyenas who manage to walk on two legs perfectly well (though Uncle Tony’s arthritis means he needs to use a stick or walking frame). The tell-tale characteristics that remain, however, are all behavioural ones. They retain a liking for decomposing food and bones, have a rather poor sense of dress and, above all, laugh uproariously at the slightest provocation – fortunately “Fred’s” job as a writer of Christmas cracker jokes provides plenty of fuel to satisfy Hyaenidae behaviour. It also means that Clary can get away with some “so bad they’re good” puns and jokes. The rest of the script fortunately does not seek to patronise and there’s even the very occasional hint at smut to keep the adults focused without compromising the family nature of the show; Clary himself provides some well-judged voice overs. I certainly enjoyed some of the wittily glorious rhyming which brought the songs to life – There’s nothing keener than a hyena drinking its Ribena – and although Weston’s tunes may not remain long in the memory they are catchy enough to do an excellent job at the point of delivery. A big plus is James Button’s adaptable Day-Glo set with a particularly clever family car which seems to have gone back to the Flintstones for its ideas on propulsion.
The cast are uniformly excellent with many of them doubling up as minor characters. This was momentarily confusing as the ever bouncy pups Bobby and Betty (Sam Swann and Mae Munro) and best human friend Minnie (Charity Bedu-Addo) suddenly morph into some street bullies who try to take on Uncle Tony (Jon Trenchard) but otherwise worked well. Sam Pay’s Mr McNumpty makes a fine foil to the family trying to live an ordinary life and provides some surprises of his own at the end. Holding the show together as the senior Bolds, David Ahmad and Amanda Gordon, ensure the pace never flags and even encourage some audience participation. In truth, with their flexibility and caring natures these wild animals make a better job of parenting than many a human.
As so often, the Unicorn Theatre has come up trumps with a witty, playful show containing plenty of heart and soul, but which makes its points lightly and ensures that fun is the primary motivator. This show is bound to take children back to the source material and get them reading. Although not typical Clary territory it might provide another string to the comic’s bow with further adaptations to follow – after all it has certainly worked for Walliams.