The Selfish Giant REVIEW | Royal & Derngate, Northampton

The Selfish Giant, a brand new folk musical adapted and composed by Ivor Novello award-winning Guy Chambers has its premiere at Royal & Derngate as part of this year’s Made in Northampton season.

Based on the not particularly well known short children’s story The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde, the entirely sung-through production is aimed at children from 8 upwards. The one-act, 80-minute performance combines elements of puppetry and physical theatre, on top of a strong ensemble cast, along with some simple, but cleverly used scenery.

There is a beautiful garden, belonging to a giant who has been away for some time. Children love to play here, enjoying the wonderful things that nature has to offer. Upon his return, the giant evicts them – “My own garden is my own garden.” he bellows as he builds his enormous wall to keep them out, and so the children leave, sending the garden into an endless winter. It is not until the giant realises his selfishness is the cause of his own unhappiness as he watches the children sneak into his garden to play that Spring returns.

The Selfish Giant by Robert Day        Izuka Hoyle, Rose Shalloo, Scott Sutcliffe

Perhaps a timely piece, in light of American politics, about how building a wall only serves as a barrier to happiness – and it contains an important message, too, about perseverance and striving for goals.

The children (Natasha Cottriall, Olly Dobson, Jacob Fisher, Izuka Hoyle, Rose Shalloo, Laura Sillett, Scott Sutcliffe and Laila Zaidi) create a harmonious image of childhood, in timeless costumes that could be straight from the pages of a Famous Five book. They frolick in the gardens playing hopscotch and tag, revelling in their innocence, before being cast out into the harsh winter. Each performer gives a strong performance, especially in the face of some difficult songs – they’ve all mastered the wide-eyed innocence of their characters youth as they playfully tell their uplifting story to the audience. Jeff Nicholson creates an imposing figure as The Giant, booming out his songs in dramatic fashion and towering over his fellow actors – such a character could be terrifying in the wrong hands, especially to a young audience, but Nicholson’s Giant is restrained enough to be formidable but not frightening.

Simon Kenny‘s set, too, invokes the imagination of childhood – the wall is made of cardboard boxes, the trees are wooden A-frame ladders, and the change in seasons is marked by the changing of coloured balloons.

The Selfish Giant by Robert Day

The difficulty with sung-through musicals, or a folk opera as The Selfish Giant has been deemed, is that it can be tricky to follow the more intricate action. The Selfish Giant doesn’t fall into this pit – the 5-minute short story is woven nicely into the 80-minute production, without the sense that it has been padded. It is a little static perhaps, with the most enjoyable scenes being the ones with the most movement. The introduction of Hail (Olly Dobson) proved an interesting moment – certainly the most dynamic and up-tempo number in the show, and the one that got the biggest reaction from the audience, but it felt like it had snuck in from another production. Not a bad scene, but out of place in an otherwise gently paced show. We Don’t Know Why had the children angrily rebelling against their expulsion and featured the show’s only choreographed dance moves, while the softly sung message in Where There’s A Will There’s A Way has some fantastic lyrics about summoning up the courage to achieve your goals.

There are some genuinely lovely moments of direction in the show, especially the gradual softening, and shrinking, of the Giant as he mellows and warms towards his young visitors.

The music itself has a nice level of repetition and familiarity to it (especially if you’ve listened to Guy Chambers’ work with Robbie Williams) but there aren’t any standout numbers, and as the words are often taken directly from Oscar Wilde’s text, some of the sung-through moments feel at odds when compared to the more “musical” songs. The melodies have an underlying mystical feeling to them, so while they might not be the most memorable of musical numbers, they certainly elicit a sense of magic throughout.

As theatre for kids goes, this is something quite different – it’s daring to take an unfamiliar tale and create an entirely sung-through production with it. A heartwarming story, with some lovely performances and delightful scenery, but while it’s not “unfinished”, it doesn’t feel totally refined.

The Selfish Giant runs until Sat 7 April 2018 at Royal & Derngate, before heading to the Vaudeville Theatre, London from 10-14 April.

Performance: Fri 6 April 2018, Royal & Derngate, Northampton