The NT’s triumphantly weird new musical ‘Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear’ is adept both at delighting kids and at giving adults regular icy shivers of horror. The title’s Mr Gum is basically the bloke from Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’, but with a drink problem and a harrowing sidekick who’s a butcher in a bloodstained apron. His endless quest for beer leads him to kidnap a bear and force it to dance, while nine-year-old concerned citizen Polly tries to rescue the furry captive and lead it to freedom.
That’s the plot out of the way; there’s not much of it, which makes room for director Amy Hodge to have oodles of fun with the world of kids’ author Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books. It’s one with its own misshapen language, packed with non-sequiturs, impenetrable sayings (‘the truth is a lemon meringue pie’) and comic misunderstandings of the laws of physics. As Polly, Keziah Joseph is sweetly convincing, especially in the scenes where she bonds with the titular bear; they sniff each other cautiously, then gambol across the stage, safe in the knowledge that they’re the only sincerely good beings in this warped world.
Jim Fortune’s music captures all the not-quite-right-ness of Stanton’s story in shudders of percussion, synthesizer, and musical saw. Sometimes, the whole cast joins together for the odd retro-sounding number that summons up the hard-knocks world of ‘Oliver’ or ‘Les Miserables’; the scene of degeneracy down by the docks is a particular masterstroke, featuring sailors in tattoo-decked mesh shirts and a confused strumpet wearing nipple pasties on her elbows. Georgia Lowe’s design is full of exhilaratingly subversive touches like this, finding a perfect balance between lo-fi silliness and technically impressive effects that turn the Dorfman’s small stage into a place of wonder.
Think about it too hard and ‘Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear’ is quite an old-fashioned thing, pitting the Good Child against the Undesirably Impure Adult in time-honoured Dickensian fashion. It’s also very self-aware, and ready to subvert its heaviest emotional moments with post-modern irony. A genre that luckily, kids seem to embrace. They lap up this offbeat blend of bad-old-days violence, giant dancing doughnuts, and knowing, but expansive, joy.