Review: The Magic Bookmark at Liverpool Theatre Festival ***1/2
The ebullient Mama G - part-Danny La Rue, part-Princess Margaret and wholly the colourful alter ego of performer Robert Pearce - appeared as the Dame in Goldilocks at the Epstein last Christmas.
But when not treading the panto boards (or appearing on Britain’s Got Talent with the supergroup Dame Nation), Mama is also the face of Petite Pantos and travels the country telling tales in cafés, libraries, bookshops and theatres which aim to impart a feelgood message.
The staging for The Magic Bookmark, in this Liverpool Theatre Festival version at least, is cheerfully lo-fi – a bookcase centre stage, flanked by a red beanbag and a mini inflatable paddling pool, and to one side a flatscreen TV on which Mama G’s nemesis, the bookworm, appears in cartoon form.
Mama’s magic sidekick meanwhile is a glove puppet who talks and sings in American tones.
It’s a testament to Pearce’s/Mama G’s style of storytelling, as well as kids’ imaginations, that the young audience evidently doesn’t need bells and whistles to embark on an adventure where they’re encouraged to boo the baddie, shout ‘he’s behind you’ and where there’s some panto-style on stage participation (albeit without the usual bribe of a packet of sweets).
And if there are a few hiccups with the technology that is used, as a veteran of the panto world where you have to anticipate the unexpected, Pearce smooths them over with a conspiratorial nod and a self-effacing joke.
After the bookworm empties libraries all over the world and re-stocks them with titles in his own image, literature-loving Mama teams up with the Magic Bookmark to track down three volumes that might persuade him of the importance of access to books of all kinds and why good stories are inclusive of everyone (even worms).
This quest takes them to Australia, the Caribbean and then finally a London library, while bookworm tries to thwart them at every turn.
At each location Mama and Magic Bookmark locate a book which is then read to their young audience followed by a short discussion about its themes, including kindness and empathy, bravery, strength, and – most importantly – accepting who you are and being comfortable in your own skin. Or fur in the case of Jeanne Willis' The Bear Who Had Nothing to Wear.
Parents, guardians or carers who have views on young children being introduced to gender ideology should be aware that one of Mama’s discoveries is Juno Dawson’s You Need to Chill.
Ultimately, in a world where young people often spend their time zoned out on electronic devices, The Magic Bookmark is a warm, colourful, enjoyably homespun hurrah for the printed word and the libraries – those palaces of wonder and knowledge – that celebrate it.
And if the forest of hands which shoot up when the young audience are asked to name their favourite stories is anything to go by, the next generation celebrates reading too.
Photo by David Munn