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The Mouse Queen Reviews (Hampstead, LAT, Unicorn, New Victory 2005-6)

From The Times

November 7, 2006

The Mouse Queen

Sam Marlowe at the Unicorn, SE1

Here’s a rare treat: a family show whose big ideas are witty, surprisingly sophisticated and served up with such exuberance and charm that it should be impossible for anyone, of any age, to resist it.
Based on a clutch of Aesop’s fables, The Mouse Queen, a lively musical with klezmer-inflected songs by Ben Glasstone, who also co-wrote the book with the performer Tim Kane, was first presented at Islington’s Little Angel puppet theatre in 2004. Since then, this diminutive extravaganza with its cast of seven actor- musicians, directed with boundless elan by Steve Tiplady, has played Broadway — inhabiting the theatre opposite The Lion King, no less. It is indisputably a mouse that roars.
Its rodent heroine is Tilly (Ruth Calkin), a sweet-natured country mouse who accidentally stumbles into the dog-eat-dog kingdom of Leonard, a posh, pinstriped lion who, as played by Kane, is faintly reminiscent of David Cameron. Horrified by the brutal law of the jungle, in which the old and vulnerable are abandoned or preyed upon by the strong, Tilly ventures on a quest to the big city, where perhaps she can learn to become more powerful.
Meanwhile, Leonard, eager to prove himself king not just of the beasts but of all the world, sets out on a similar journey, promising his menagerie of subjects that he will return with the head of the city’s human king as a trophy. Naturally, it’s not long before both cat and mouse come unstuck — and only by becoming the unlikeliest of allies can they survive.
Tiplady’s production, with ingenious, slogan-bedecked, bold designs by Peter O’Rourke, unravels this involving moral tale through shadow and stick puppetry as well as energetic acting and winning renditions of Kane and Glasstone’s foot-tapping tunes. Some sequences are jauntily comic, such as a paean to the almost narcotic delights of cheese; others — in particular, the lilting lament of an Italian restaurateur’s lonely daughter as she cleans the scruffy café where both Tilly and Leonard are secretly holed up — are nothing short of exquisite. And the themes of social responsibility are so skilfully woven into the action that the piece never feels preachy. It’s a wonderfully inventive work that genuinely has something to say — and has terrific fun saying it. A joy.


She Is Mouse (Hear Her Roar)

New York Times
Published: October 18, 2005
"There are two kinds of creatures: one who bullies, one who begs." Such is the sad insight of young Tilly Mouse (Zoë Bywater), heroine of the marvelous musical by the Little Angel Theater of London, making its American debut with "The Mouse Queen," based on Aesop's fables.
Tilly has stumbled into the clutches of Leonard the Lion, played with charming swagger by Tim Kane in pinstripes, a silly mane (seemingly cut from vinyl upholstery) and adorably outsize velvety ears. With his Shakespearean airs and baffled brow, Mr. Kane may be the most ferociously vulnerable King of Beasts since Bert Lahr. That he is a full-size man, and Tilly a tiny rod-puppet, underlines the imbalance of power, an inequality no doubt felt daily by at least half the audience. Leonard releases Tilly, but only because she shows him a coin bearing the face of a more powerful king, whom he rushes off to defeat. Tilly follows, hoping to shake her new sense of insignificance and become as big as the city itself.
The director Steve Tiplady and the designers Peter O'Rourke, Adam Crosthwaite (lighting) and Sarah Weltman (sound) conjure the wildness of tropical and urban jungles with a child's resourcefulness: animating bits of wood and hand-lettered signs, letting funny ears transform humans into furry creatures. As Tilly drifts into the dangerous forest, the merry flowers that accompany her are squares of wood silk-screened with photos of flowers, which are slowly invaded by snapshots of beetles.
On a small shadow screen, the skeletal fingers of ferns scrabble and grasp. The metropolis bristles with visual puns worthy of Magritte: yellow and orange boards labeled Taxi and Truck race past Tall Buildings. The puppets too are pared to their essence: the despairing Lorna (Hannah Marshall), a Bunraku puppet, huddles over her Hoover vacuum, so attenuated as to nearly disappear.
With all the characters singing or playing instruments, the music by Ben Glasstone provides the show's vibrant heart. Glasstone successfully mixes wildly disparate styles, from klezmer to Renaissance madrigal, and his lyrics are inspired. When a confused Leonard finally confronts the cafe proprietor Bernie King (Mandy Travis) the two tango while debating the relative strengths of man and beast. "We're experts in logistics and in aerial photography; you barely will believe what we've achieved in lexicography," Bernie sings. To which Leonard responds, "It almost seems a shame to be abridging your biography."
Never fear, the ending is happy and the proper morals are dispensed.

Adam Crosthwaite
Leonard the Lion, left, with his musical pals in "The Mouse Queen."

The Mouse Queen
Little Angel, London

Lyn Gardner
The Guardian, Wednesday 12 January 2005 02.47 GMT

It may be only little, but under artistic director Steve Tiplady, the Angel is getting above itself - in the very best possible way. After the wonderful Jabberwocky, a visit by Improbable and collaboration with the RSC on Shakespeare's erotic love poem, Venus and Adonis, this Islington puppet theatre is fast staking a claim for itself as one of London's most interesting theatres.
This musical for children is a case in point. From Peter O'Rourke's wonderfully imaginative design of faded sunflowers and jumbled up newspaper headlines (as if a poison-pen letter writer with a taste for the absurd has gone berserk) to its witty ditties and klezma-style score, this is a truly original piece of work that conjoins two of Aesop's fables - The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse and The Lion and the Mouse - to make one story.
To be honest, the joins sometimes show, but the whole thing is done with such dash, such a sense of fun and such bold theatricality that you don't really mind. There is so much to enjoy here, from the seamless mixing of human actors and various puppets to a script that is quirky enough to offer the "rubbish truck of redemption" and the "Hoover bag of hope". There is a wonderful sequence where the lion, arriving in the city, confronts buildings constructed entirely out of newsprint and humans made from words - generally words such as "Ouch!" after he has devoured their legs.
The puppets all give remarkable performances; some of the humans are less assured. But once again Tiplady proves that puppetry - and children's theatre - have no boundaries except those we choose to impose upon them.

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