Bob the Builder Live

A star is born at the Waterfront Hall, and it's not the geezer with the hard hat. John Higgins is pleasantly surprised

The Waterfront is teeming. Children are running all over the foyer in their Bob the Builder hard-hats. It’s like a Fraggle Rock wrap party where the Doozers get out of control on a candy canes. In fact, considering kids' careless attitude towards physical danger, those helmets seem like a good idea.

It's all very Bob the Builder. He’s a useful, pragmatic kind of guy. He gets things done, tidies up after himself and doesn’t even want a cup of tea for his efforts. Right? Wrong. It turns out Bob is a very laissez-faire, hands-off kind of guy, soneone who is perfectly happy to delegate work to the inept and the, frankly, inanimate.

Bob and his partner Wendy have been contracted to rebuild the dilapidated Fixham Theatre at the behest of player/manager Dicky Olivier. Olivier is oddly kitted out in a mandarin suit and showroom dummy hair, and mugs as furiously as any man I have ever seen. If the stage wasn't so bare, he'd be chewing on the scenery. In fact, I assume that’s why Fixham Theatre needs fixing in the first place.

There is a limited time period to effect these improvements. Olivier has, rather impetuously, decided to stage the grand re-opening gala before any of the renovations have been done. Bob isn’t worried. He won’t be doing any work himself, but his team is all over it.

The team consists of Scoop, a digger; Lofty, a winch; and Scrambler, a whatever-Scrambler-is-supposed to be. Quite what use a digger and a winch would be for the three tasks Bob has to undertake (building a small wall, making a snow machine and gluing together some scenery) is difficult to understand.

And in the end neither Scoop nor Lofty quite makes it inside, becoming wedged in the doorways of the backstage entrance and the dressing room door respectively. Only Scrambler has the run of the stage, but spends his time uselessly moving back and forth, making annoying cat noises.

And then there is Spud. I’d been warned about Spud. 'He means well,' friends said, 'there’s nothing malicious in him. It’s just that he gets so distracted. Things just always seem to go wrong for him.' Well all I can say is, thank heavens for Spud! I’m not sure even the famine blasted farmers of the 1840s were as pleased to see Spud as I was.

Let’s make no bones about this, Spud is the show. Any time he is not on stage is a wasted moment. Bob and Wendy blunder about, giving each other the thumbs up with their unblinking apple-pip eyes and a visible seam up the back of their heads like a lobotomy scar.

Spud doesn’t. He is an enervating, subversive presence. The children, whose attention had been wandering through the windy Bob passages, instinctively respond to him. His first entrance receives the biggest cheer of the show. Next to Bob’s patrician responsibility, he is vainglorious and delinquent.

Olivier, meanwhile, is a ball of camp energy throughout, but he is just a man. Spud is a pumpkin in colostomy pants with a parsnip for a nose and the voice of a needy dalek.

He also has a genuine grievance: despite their obvious uselessness, Bob genuinely seems to prefer the digger, the winch and the scrambler to Spud. So when Spud decides that he wants to be the star of the show, instead of a disrespected drudge, who can blame him?

His song 'A Scarecrow’s Life' is an existentialist cri-de-coeur. When he sings the line 'I think I’ve sprained my straw' he becomes more than an irritating Zippy analogue – he becomes you and I. He is a flawed anti-hero, there to upset Bob’s emotional spirit-level, the dry rot at the heart of his world. He is the most human figure on stage.

So, at the thrilling crescendo of the show, when he does indeed become 'Superstar Spud', it is a victory for all of us. Tonight we are all superstars!

For more shows at the Belfast Waterfront, check out the event guide on their website.