Review – Stig of the Dump – Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre.

Pic by Mark McNulty

GROSVENOR Park Open Air Theatre first presented Jessica Swale’s adaptation of Stig of the Dump in their 2016 season. It was an absolutely glorious thing and some of the best family entertainment that this reviewer has seen. So the burning question here is can they manage to equal or even better that achievement in this revival.

The short answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

Clive King’s 1963 novel explores a lot of themes, not least of which is just how little the human race has evolved since prehistoric times. Swale’s adaptation certainly manages to hint heavily at how uncivilised our modern civilization can be, but it particularly focuses on the sense of isolation felt by its central character, Barney, a boy who has to live with his grandparents for the summer. Bullied by a gang called the Snargets, Barney finds that he is better able to make friends with Stig, a caveman living in a rubbish dump at the bottom of a chalk pit, with whom he has no shared language. They get to know each other by developing a form of sign language, and together manage to win over the Snargets, as well as Barney’s doubtful sister and grandparents.

The absolute stroke of genius in this revival of the 2016 production is the decision to recast Barney as a deaf character, to have both him and Stig played by deaf actors, and to include integrated sign language in the production. It’s such a brilliant idea that you have to wonder why nobody thought of it before.

Mia Ward will be familiar to younger audiences for CBeebies’ Magic Hands, and they bring us a great performance as Barney. With a blend of genuine BSL and improvised forms of signing, Ward and Alex Nowak as Stig make the show extraordinarily immersive, drawing us in to the story as they learn to understand each other, and to find ways of interacting with the hearing characters.

Swale and director Harry Jardine have done an incredible job of reworking the production into something inclusive and totally engaging. The removal of quite a lot of spoken dialogue brings a new element of focus to the storytelling. Francis Tucker has written a percussive score for a range of improvised instruments that can be felt as much as heard, bringing a sense of excitement and added energy.

But as well as this layering of communication styles, the play still has at its heart a story about isolation, friendship and kindness, while reminding us of the magic of childhood and the possibilities that exist when we choose to believe in each other.

Swale’s adaptation not so much departs from King’s original ending, but it takes a riff on it, in a closing scene that leaves us believing that the magic can happen. Here speaking actors on the periphery mirror the signed dialogue centre-stage, ensuring that the final message is both seen and heard.

Star rating: 5 stars

Review by Nigel Smith