This utterly charming, unexpectedly affecting show, designed for kids around Key Stage 2, combines a thoughtful story with delightful images and some impressive acting as well. The titular Arthur is the only character, but the world he inhabits is a rich one: there are elephants from India, a mountain in New Zealand, and a street of little houses somewhere much closer to home. Filled with opportunities for the young ones to get involved, there’s plenty in the sweet and warming tale to entertain their parents too.
Arthur was once a venturesome man; but he’s grown older now, and it seems his confidence has failed him. We find him at the start of the play isolated and alone, trapped within an attic room he never dares to leave. Each night he goes to the window, to share some reminiscences with his one remaining friend – the moon. So when the moon goes missing, Arthur is forced to dip into his memories, and use all his resourcefulness to track his absent companion down.
The four-member cast includes no fewer than three narrators, who maintain a constant connection between the children in the audience and the story unfolding on stage. Simple, clear participatory tasks – like blowing on a balloon or pulling an imaginary rope – keep everyone present engaged, while the young viewers also have the chance to contribute to the story by making suggestions to fill in details of the plot. It adds up to a challenging task for actor Michael Smith, who delivers (without ever speaking) an enormously likeable Arthur. A natural physical performer, Smith improvises his way around even offbeat propositions, working each of the youngsters’ contributions instantly into his act.
These interactive segments are intercut with beautiful, spellbinding set-pieces – which held the kids in the room enraptured, and brought out my own goosebumps too. The image of the moon as a constant friend proves an early highlight, while a rousing later scene sees Arthur climb Mount Cook, overcoming countless obstacles (with encouragement from the audience) to conquer both the summit and his own self-doubt. From time to time, the action escapes the stage and moves in among the children; look out for the balloons which the house-bound Arthur uses to send messages, a simple but delightful device which again links the actors to the crowd.
There’s only one passage I’m less sure about – when Arthur’s remembered travels take him to a nameless developing country, and we meet a child labourer struggling to make his way to school. It’s a captivating piece of puppetry, and there’s no denying its social importance, but from a purely theatrical point of view I fear it may be overreaching. The topic of child poverty is an enormous one to tackle, and here it feels a little like a box-tick: a brief treatment of a complex subject shoehorned into a generally quite different show.
In the end though, According To Arthur plays to big, simple emotions: ones with power enough to touch even the grown-ups in the room. On the surface, it’s a blood-stirring memoir of heroic derring-do, but underneath it lies a subtler and more affecting kind of bravery. By the end of the story, Arthur’s found the strength to leave his lonely attic room – to set out again on his path to adventure, one halting step at a time. Every now and then, we all feel the urge to hide ourselves away… but as this warm-hearted show tells us, we’ll find friendship and companionship if we dare to venture into the big wide world.