Take a seat. It’s time for rhyme in Oi Frog & Friends’ school chaos at York Theatre Royal

Rhyme and reason: Frog makes the rules on a chaotic day at Sittingbottom School in Oi Frog & Friends!

ON a new day at Sittingbottom School, Frog is looking for a place to sit, but Cat has other ideas and Dog is happy to play along. Cue multiple rhyming rules and chaos when Frog is placed in in charge in Oi Frog & Friends! at York Theatre Royal today and tomorrow. 

Suitable for age three upwards, this 55-minute, action-packed play comes with original songs, puppets, laughs and “more rhyme than you can shake a chime at”.

The Olivier Award-nominated, fun-filled musical has been transferred to the stage by Emma Earle, Zoe Squire, Luke Bateman and Richy Hughes from Kes Gray and Jim Field’s hit picture books.

Those Oi Frog! books – Oi Cat!, Oi Dog!, Oi Duck-billed Platypus!, Oi Puppies! and Oi Aardvark! among them – revel in rhyming, prompted by “the cliché that underpins so many childhoods” that frogs sit on logs and cats sit on mats, says Gray.

From this starting point, Gray and Field sough to explain to the world where other animals sat in this realm of rhyming recliners. Cue more than one million book sales. One million!  “I keep trying to think of it as if it’s a massive stadium full of people holding a copy of the book, then doing that ten times over,” contemplates illustrator Field.

Now, Frog, Dog, Cat and their chair-shunning cohorts have leapt from page to stage in a stage show produced by Kenny Wax Family Entertainment, the company behind theatrical conversions of The Worst Witch, Hetty Feather and What The Ladybird Heard, adapted by the creative team of director Earle and designer Squire (of Pins and Needles Productions), composer Bateman and lyricist Hughes.

Cue a nomination for the Olivier Award for Best Family Show in 2020. “We didn’t see it coming,” says Gray. “When we were asked ‘Can we put it on stage?’, I thought, ‘I don’t know, can you?’ We certainly don’t know because we don’t create theatre, we create books.”

Field says: “It’s amazing to see what’s happened. If you adapted it directly from the books, the show would only be about 15 minutes long, so they’ve created a backstory around the characters. There’s a whole life for Cat that we never knew about. It really has given it a new life and greater depth. And all the songs they’ve come up with as well!”

The Oi Frog & Friends! stage adaptation mixes drama, puppetry, jokes, rhymes and songs in drawing from the first four books to tell its story of a day at Sittingbottom School, where chaos reigns when Frog decides he might not want to perch his bottom on a log.

“We know the medium of the books but theatre is a different medium, so we have had to let somebody else run with it where they have the expertise,” says Field. “That’s their specialty. We were involved at the early stages, but we’ve let the people who know what they’re doing bring it to life.”

Nevertheless, they kept more than one eye on proceedings, Gray focusing on the narrative and chronology of the piece to be performed to a young audience “who are super bright, retain so much information and will know instinctively whether what a character says is true to them.” Field, meanwhile, has been particular, for example, about the minutiae of puppet eyebrow placement.

“I think it’s my job to ask ‘What about this? What about that?’,” reasons Gray. “But all concerns go away when it becomes collaborative, and this has been collaborative from day one. And lots of fun. They know what they’re doing, so Oi Frog Friends! is a lovely balance between what the books have to offer and what a stage performance has to offer.”

Gray and Field were thrilled to see the show in its West End premiere in December 2019, before the UK tour was launched in February 2020 and soon stalled by Covid, but now resumed.

Gray says: “It has taken the Oi characters to places I could never have imagined. The fun, the artistry and the sheer theatrical genius of this production really is something to behold.”

Field concurs: “Seeing the characters brought to life from our series of Oi books was both surreal and incredible. Oi Frog & Friends! bounces along with non-stop energy, amazing puppets, funny songs, shouty rhymes, and a squirty elephant trunk. It’s brilliantly bonkers!”

Field rejoins: “I think children experiencing as much culture as they can is a great thing. Reading is absolutely essential; parents should be reading to their children every night. And I remember what it was like seeing brilliant Christmas pantos.”

Gray concludes: “I think it’s important for children to do things that take their minds in different directions. There’s something wonderful about going to the theatre; it kind of hugs you. You get in, and you don’t want to leave.”

Oi Frog & Friends, York Theatre Royal, today at 1.30pm and 4.30pm; tomorrow, 10.30am and 1.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

By Matthew Amer and Charles Hutchinson