'The Little Gardener' review or 'Do you dig it?'

The Little Gardener - Emily Hughes
Lyric Hammersmith, 8th June 2016 
Written for Guardian online 

My theatre companion for the day, Frida, doesn’t have a garden at home. She does, however, have a balcony with a “flower plant, an orange tree, a tomato tree and a bouncy ball”. Like most four-year-olds, Frida isn’t a huge gardening enthusiast. I’m concerned that this adaptation of Emily Hughes’s picturebook The Little Gardener isn’t going to appeal.
How It Ended theatre company (led by director Eva Sampson) have set their puppet show inside a mini-greenhouse, which stands outside the Lyric Hammersmith in London. As always with gardening, the first concern is the weather. The audience gather round the greenhouse to watch the show from outside. It’s June, so naturally it’s pouring with rain. Luckily, the shower stops just in time for the show and a slightly soggy crowd look into designer James Lewis’s greenhouse. The children move in closer, while the parents peer anxiously at the clouds overhead.
Inside is a mini-garden with tiny paths, a scattering of flowers and gardening tools and a dinky puppet gardener. A gentle-looking giant – actor Peter Hobday – controls the puppet and the contrast in size between Hobday and his puppet makes the little gardener seem littler still. Andy Lawrence’s puppet gardener looks exactly like Emily Hughes’s original creation, with a shiny smiling face, jolly blue dungarees and a raggedy straw hat.
There’s not much narrative to speak of, and we spend much of the time watching the little gardener struggle with his big garden chores. Darren Clark’s soundtrack chirrups overhead, but it’s so loud that Frida clamps her hands over her ears. A perfectly lovely theme song is woven into the piece but, on the 10th hearing (“Why does your garden grooooow?”), it becomes a little wearing.
The gardener struggles with a plastic bag and shelters from the storm but these elements, which are surely a conservationism nudge, feel muted. Frida asks a lot of questions (“Why is he smiling? Why is he sleeping?”) that I struggle to answer. It’s only when the gardener falls asleep and the children are invited inside – to help plant his flowers – that this show blossoms. There is such care on the children’s faces as they earnestly dig away at the soil. One kid keeps to the paths in an attempt to protect the grass. It’s a gorgeous and cheering sight.


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