Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre may be best known for its outstanding Shakespeare productions but the temporary Chester venue has also played host to some exceptional shows which have come from a variety of other sources.
In fact, I could make out a strong case that the most memorable presentation to have been staged in the Chester beauty spot so far is The Secret Garden from a couple of years back.
So it was with no small degree of satisfaction that one heard the news that Jessica Swale, who adapted that children’s classic for GPOAT, was returning to the fold to take on another piece of landmark primary school fiction with Stig of the Dump.
This Clive King book has been doing the rounds in classrooms for generations - I vividly remember my teacher reading the first chapter to our class when I was seven, although curiously I cannot recall another word of the book so I was only vaguely aware of the plot when taking my seat in the Grosvenor Park on Sunday during what must have been the hottest day of the year so far.
It’s not the most complicated of stories - essentially bullied and lonely boy meets misunderstood caveman - and it is hardly loaded with incident but what Swale has done with the tale and how director Derek Bond interprets that in the performance space was nothing short of magical.
What took me by surprise was how multi-layered the saga turned out to be with its themes of diversity, prejudice, acceptance and understanding, all of which are delivered with subtlety and wit with never a danger of this coming across as heavy-handed.
It’s not all subtle - not by any means. After all, this is primarily aimed at the pre-teens and they are well served by a production that remains constantly aware of the childhood wish-fulfillment elements of being a youngster with a time-travelling caveman for a best friend.
How much you enjoy the show will probably depend on how far you are willing to go with the way Stig himself is portrayed. Taking the inspired puppetry that was an incidental part of The Secret Garden a stage further, for most of the story Stig is like a bigger version of Animal from the Muppets being carried around and voiced by the boundlessly energetic John Seaward.
It takes a few minutes to buy into the concept which is no big surprise considering it takes our young hero Barney (Anton Cross) a little while to get used to the very existence of Stig. But after a while, both Barney and the audience warm to the delights of this fish out of water character as he delightfully picks up some basic English words while Barney himself enjoys a crash course in caveman-speak.
You come to accept the puppet of Stig so completely that it comes as quite a shock towards the end when Seaward turns up as a living, breathing version for a scene where Barney and his sister Lou travel back to Stig’s own time to meet his fellow cave people.
This leads to easily my favourite moment in the whole show when Charlotte Miranda-Smith seizes her moment in the spotlight as Lou to deliver an hysterically funny nonsensical speech to the cave people which combines Shakespeare’s greatest hits, a touch of Lewis Carroll and as many random cliches as she can think of!
And there is one final element which adds to its must-see nature. Music often plays a vital role in the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre offerings but rarely has it been such an indispensible part of a play’s appeal as it is here.
From start to finish, the entire company provides us with a masterclass in the art of percussion. What’s more, a selection of instruments are provided just outside the auditorium for young and old alike to have a go at themselves during the interval and before and after the show.