Liz Pichon is a legend in our house: she is the author adored by kids who wouldn’t otherwise pick up a book. Our own reluctant reader is transfixed by the doodling tomfoolery of Pichon’s eponymous character. Would the stage show ignite in her a love of theatre too?
An act of brilliant stagecraft.
The highly visual series of stories of the hyperactive, vibrant, music-loving, biscuit-crunching, ever-doodling Tom Gates have been translated into 43 languages and sold over 8 million copies worldwide.
And in the best traditions of theatre we are transported; into the extremely excitable mind of a hapless yet confident nine year old boy. At first it’s pretty exhausting! But not for the enraptured audience of young fans who relate perfectly to Tom’s intense dramatising, and his absorption with his friends, food, music and doodling. The adults are cast as mere caricatures, peripheral but necessary as plot devices who are reassuringly sweet and helpful. The grandparents (or “fossils” as Tom likes to call them) organise parties, play the spoons and are generally a benign set up for a joke about a Slipped Disc’O, and a full musical set piece by the Dog Zombies (Tom’s band).
Bringing young Tom and his cast of friends and family to the stage was an act of brilliant stagecraft. In the first half, the vibrant, colourful set is made up with projections which change repeatedly and instantaneously, so the action can maintain its frenetic pace. Clever, as it loyally reflects the 2D pictures on the page and allows us to revel in Tom’s visual world. How else would Tom and his friends be transported in a car with a hot dog on the roof? Or would a real dog behave himself on stage when Tom’s homework is eaten by Rooster the dog (again) and we see the little scamp run off? How else would we know how frustrating Marcus Meldew is if one of a series of Tom’s annoying-o-meters hadn’t exploded by going off the scale?
The pace of the show’s opening minutes lets you share the joys of parenting - bonkers and utterly exhausting until you relent and allow the hyperactive intensity to wash over you, and join in the songs about chips, or the one about biscuits, at the top of your lungs. Most endearing was the banal refrain about tea, which in the finale gave sweet relief with the painful - yet somehow catchy: “Drink it in the morning/ Drink it when it’s hot/ Tea will make you happy/ Even when you're not.”
Despite his poor luck, Tom has a series of happy endings. Mind the spoilers, but Tom does get to go on the school trip to the biscuit factory, he does play in a rock band with his friends, and he does jam with his otherwise moody sister Delia (who in the tradition of Young Frankenstein, appears with a crash of thunder and flash of lightning). And Tom, like the other nine year olds we love, reminds us what’s important about being nine - being nice to friends, making lists of favourite biscuits, prioritising drawing over maths - even when it ruins mum’s vintage dress.
Tom Gates - Live on Stage is ultimately endearing. My nine year old companion on returning from the interval said poignantly: “I don’t want this show to end.” That’s pretty much how we feel about her being nine, too.