All the book’s a stage

Let’s say, just for this sake of this blog, that I had to choose the three things that I love above all others. These would be my kids, reading and the theatre – not necessarily in that order.

The last decade has seen a real explosion in children’s books being adapted for the stage.   Of course this is nothing new – we’ve always had the classic favourites: Peter Pan; Wind in the Willows, and, of course, fairytale pantomimes at Christmas (although I’m not sure that pantomimes can – or even would want to – be dignified with the word ‘adaptations’). The theatre just seemed to sit up and take notice of books for children and young adults in a much more dramatic way (sorry) in the 90s and 00s.

I first noticed this trend with YA novels when the National Theatre in London started to adapt them for its Christmas show, almost as if they realised that there was this whole potential audience out there that they hadn’t bargained for. Here was a way of selling tickets to young adults, their parents, their schools and to other adults who also read YA novels. Publishers had already cottoned on as they’d started to refer to YA novels such as Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights as ‘crossover’ books, bringing out versions with more ‘adult’ covers (and more adult prices), supposedly to stop people being embarrassed at reading ‘children’s books’ (personally I have always read my children’s and YA books in public with pride, but I digress). The National Theatre staged His Dark Materials based on Pullman’s trilogy in 2003/4, followed by the magnificent Coram Boy in 2005/6, culminating of course with the unsurpassable War Horse in 2007which continues to run. The RSC‘s children’s cash cow finally came with Matilda, on which I shall gush unreservedly another time.

Before I had children I spent much of my life at the theatre, so when I had toddlers I was delighted to discover the increasing number of theatre adaptations of picture books which seemed to appear everywhere. There’s the high profile stagings of the most popular – The Gruffalo, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – but I have also seen some incredibly good adaptations of picture books on a much smaller scale. The Little Angel Theatre in London’s Islington, for example, has been quietly and innovatively staging shows for children for over 50 years. A while ago we saw their adaptation of Eileen Browne‘s picture book Handa’s Hen, and I still maintain that it was one of the most beautifully staged shows I have ever seen. It captured the simple beauty of the book (which has exquisite illustrations), but also went beyond the restrictions of the page and created a whole new dimension to the story.

I am not a dramatist or a playwright, but I am fascinated by the process of adapting children’s books into plays. The adapter shoulders such an impossible responsibility. You must adapt a form that has been written to exist in a particular way, i.e. statically on the page. In the case of picture books, images and words complement one another, and one could not work without the other – they set the tone together. You must recreate these static images in a medium that relies on movement and space.

You are also taking an experience that most often takes place intimately – either in private, or between a child and parent/carer, and trying to interpret the response to that experience of a young child – and who knows what goes on in a three year-old’s head most of the time? You are then setting up a different kind of response, i.e. that of the child to a play, while – and this is essential for me – not losing the essence of the original book and experience of reading it.

Add to this that the average picture book for young children probably takes no more than about five minutes to read, and yet you must fill at least half an hour of stage time without deviating too far from the original story or concept. You must delight and engage a demanding, impatient and distractible audience, while at the same time not boring their parents to death. You can’t let down the child who asks for ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ to be read to her fifteen times in a row and falls asleep with it on her pillow.

And yet I am continually astounded by the quality of children’s theatre and the sensitivity that goes into adapting picture books. So many adaptations that I’ve seen have treated both books and children with such respect and interpreted the stories in such endlessly creative and clever ways. I’m pathetically sentimental, so I’ve often become tearful watching my children’s responses to adaptations of favourite picture books, probably because I also invest so much myself in those adaptations (I agreed to see Coram Boy with reluctance, as I was so nervous about them messing up such an incredible book).

I will end though, with a story. In 2003 I was on a train travelling south, not long after I had first read Skellig (all posts lead back to Skellig), which was haunting my thoughts. I sat opposite a guy who was reading what looked like a script. When he put it down on the table I could see the title – Skellig. It seemed like fate – we started chatting – he was travelling from Newcastle to London to audition for the part of Michael in the Young Vic’s forthcoming production. We talked about the book, about his acting and my writing. At Kings Cross we wished one another luck in our dreams and went our separate ways.

A few months later I dragged a friend along to see Skellig at the Young Vic. I told her the story of the actor on the train, and we speculated about whether he’d got the job. He had, and he played the part to perfection. My friend had a lot more chutzpah than me, and persuaded me to hang around the stage door afterwards to congratulate him. I was horrified – he was successful – he wouldn’t remember me, a random passenger on a train many months ago. Out he came, laughing with his actor friends, saw me, and gave me a hug. “Of course I remember you!” he cried, “You’re going to write lots of books!”

Books and theatre – two of my great loves creating one of the nicest experiences I have ever had.

(And if you want to look him up, he’s called Kevin Wathen).

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17 thoughts on “All the book’s a stage

  1. Hi Lucy,
    I’ve only just ventured into the “adapt-a-book-for-the-stage” business so your post was of particular interest. I’ve always been a theatre fan and because my book “Pink!” has been widely embraced for its anti-bullying/celebrating diversity message, it seemed a perfect subject to bring to the stage. The theatre company I’m working with (Hopscotch in Glasgow) are a great bunch of people, and we look forward to taking Pink! the Musical to 80 schools across Scotland this spring.

    • Hi Lynne and welcome! I’m very excited about having a real live author/adapter commenting on the post. Quick question: how would you have felt if someone else had adapted your book, rather than you?

  2. Wasn’t Handa’s Hen fabulous! I took my son to see it about three years ago at the Little Angel Theatre in N1. He was only just one and definitely the youngest there but he was transfixed. That production has really stayed with me. So simple but so effective.

    • Hi Rebecca. It really was one of the loveliest plays I’ve ever seen. Mine were quite little too – about 2 and 3 I think, and were also transfixed. So glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Nothing like a good kids book adapted for the theatre! Or for that matter.. a good book in general. Great blog post.
    Did you get to see Honk! at the National Theatre back in 2000 (I think..) directed by Julia McKenzie? It was one of the best adaptations I’ve seen – ever!
    Having moved out of London now, I really miss weekly visits to the theatre..
    Note to self: Must make more effort with the kids to get into London! x

    • I didn’t see Honk, probably because in 2000 I was child (and fancy)-free and thought it beneath me. Now I would love to see it! We’re not in London any more either, but I’ve seen some fantastic stuff in Birmingham and Warwick Arts Centre. I couldn’t do weekly visits to the theatre now – I’d fall asleep!

  4. I agree that children’s theatre can be a magical experience. Mostly, in my view, because children can suspend disbelief in a way that us embittered cynical adults can’t. My new favourite though, is immersive theatre. Have you come across Punchdrunk Enrichment, and their most recent performance, The House Where Winter Lives? It’s playing at the Discover Children’s Story Centre in Stratford, East London, and is wonderful. I’ve written a review about it on my blog (which is a new work in progress, so apologies for its current lack of grace and elegance!)

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