The Tailor of Gloucester review – tabby triumphs in custom-made show

Beatrix Potter’s book about an ailing tailor tasked with making a coat for the mayor’s wedding was written as a Christmas gift for her former governess’s daughter. It’s full of the spirit of the season, from the message of peace and goodwill to the snow-lined streets in the illustrations, the cherry-coloured twist used for the outfit and even the festive lurgy that lays the tailor low.

As Potter’s Peter Rabbit was recently reinvented as a kind of frathouse bunny in the recent James Corden film, audiences for Wiltshire Creative’s musical production may expect more of a twist than the cherry-coloured variety. But the show sweetens the original, with the tone set by the tailor’s pink-hued, present-lined workshop, which looks more like a Cath Kidston pop-up than the bare room that Potter drew.

Verity Quinn’s appealing design for the Playhouse’s Salberg studio has bright cloths hanging from the balcony and even a length of green fabric to convey the mouldy walls of the tailor’s home. It seems Scrooge-like to suggest that a festive children’s show should look a bit bleaker, but the result is that amid such wall-to-wall finery the climactic unveiling of the mayor’s wedding clobber lacks impact.

Director Jo Newman’s show has a female tailor, so cheerily played by Lara Stubbs that her straits never seem so dire and the stakes don’t feel that high. But it’s an engaging, likable performance and Jake Mitchell makes a flamboyant flunky to the mayor, while Glyn Kerslake tickles the ivories at a white baby grand in the corner.

Puppet mice in The Tailor of Gloucester at Salisbury Playhouse. Photograph: Nick Spratling

Gareth Machin and Kerslake’s adaptation recognises that the book’s best character is the crotchety cat Simpkin, with the growly meow and the insatiable appetite for plump mice. Natalie Williams gives us a sly, slinky and deliciously sarcastic Simpkin, who has a paw-licking ode to favourite types of fish. Williams’s cat ears are craftily provided by a bow headband that is part of a bow motif stretching from the design of the tiles to the ribbon tied on the tailor’s shoes.

If the script cuts away many of the idiosyncrasies of Potter’s storytelling, it’s nevertheless an easy-to-follow, interactive tale with the cast deftly getting the children involved – at one stage they assemble the mayor’s outfit – and just as deftly responding to their unpredictable interjections. This is an hour that’s jaunty, prettily presented and worth it for the tabby of Gloucester.

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