David Walliams’ The Midnight Gang, Chichester Festival Theatre, until November 3.
David Walliams was cheered at the start simply for taking his seat. By the end of the evening he was enveloped in a roaring, standing ovation – perfectly deserved acclaim for a wonderful night at the Festival Theatre.
Adapted for the stage by Bryony Lavery, Walliams’ Midnight Gang in its new musical guise is warm, instantly engaging, fun, funny and thoroughly enjoyable – but just as importantly it is also profound, intelligent and, amid the laughs, deeply moving.
There are some lovely performances by the adults – Matthew Cavendish as the hopelessly overwhelmed junior doctor; Tim Mahendran as a viciously mean headteacher; Dickon Gough as the heart-of-gold Porter; and, above all, Jennie Dale as the most deliciously foul Matron.
But it is the children who carry the show – and they do so brilliantly and touchingly, masters of the stage with that terrific mix of assurance and naturalness which has become the hallmark of Dale Rooks’ direction of young talent.
It all starts when Tom – beautifully played by Cody Molko – receives a cricket ball on the head and is delivered into the care of the children’s ward at Lord Funt Hospital, a ward which the misguided matron thinks she rules with a rod of iron.
In fact, it’s a place where dreams come true as the Midnight Gang gathers each night.
Rafi Essex as George, Felix Warren as Robin and Jasmine Sakyiama as Amber are terrific as they open up their special world to Tom. Cerys Hill gives a superb performance as Sally, the most ill of all of them and the patient with the most heart-breakingly simple of dreams.
Helped on by Joe Stilgoe’s excellent music and lyrics, the result is a show which hits all the right notes, an entrancing meditation on what it means to dream which also unpicks the bully’s mentality. Children in hospital… well, it ran the risk of being just a little mawkish. But there is no false sentiment here. Instead, it’s a show with something important to say and a show which says it with wit, fun and originality.