'Chester Tuffnut' review or 'Flirting snails and flying moles.'

Chester Tuffnut, Rosanna Lowe
Polka Theatre, 26th June 2016
Written for Guardian Stage 

I’m no expert in woodland creatures and neither is my four-year-old theatre companion, Frida. Before going to see Chester Tuffnut, we carry out a quick Google search to double check that tree moles – the star of this show – are not in fact real. They’re not. Chester Tuffnut is one of a kind: a mossy and floppy green creature who is awfully fond of adventure. Director Matt Addicott’s family show isn’t always adventurous enough but it is still an attractive and relaxing stroll of a show.
The action unfolds deep in the woods but – much to Frida’s delight (she isn’t a fan of mess) – there’s not a speck of dirt in sight. Designer Robyn Wilson-Owenspecialises in hand-drawn artwork and there’s an attention to detail about her delicate design that sets it apart. Everything on stage, from the woodland itself (sensitively lit by Chris Randall) to the puppet creatures that scurry about the undergrowth, has been created with palpable affection and care.
Wooden crates line the stage, each with beautifully realised animal homes nestling inside. When nighttime falls, an owl’s eyes glow brightly in the dark and lights flicker from inside the crates. A spindly tree sculpture plays host to a range of quirky animal puppets. Ants scuttle up the tree trunk and an injured bat (an artfully shaped piece of leather with a felt head) rests high in the branches. Two snails – with stunning suede tapestry shells – slither across the ground. There’s a really smart symbiosis between the material and personality of the animal puppets: the snails have grey socks for heads, which somehow makes them seem lazier than ever.
The puppets captivate but Rosanna Lowe’s story – which is little more than a woodland tour – begins to flag. Animal puppeteers Amy Tweed and Clare Fraenkel have heaps of energy but the endless stream of animal gobbledy gook gets a little tired. Sanjay Shelat has slightly more to play with in his role as nutty professor and, at one point, even licks the trees he loves so deeply. It would’ve been nice to have a few more oddball moments in a show that plays it slightly too safe.
Frida is pretty restless by the time the show’s “message” comes round: “Watching the world go by is plenty adventure enough.” We’re not convinced. But then the actors step out into the audience and the real adventure begins. A bat settles on Frida’s head and a snail wriggles over her toes. Frida rolls around on the fake grass and begins scampering about, her own imagination set free.