Something beastly this way comes

Fairy tales are not just for children, says Alys Kihl, founder of the theatre group Wonderful Beast. As she tells Laura Tennant, they can be a good way of exploring the mystery of exactly who and what we are
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The Independent Culture

If Alys Kihl's life was the subject of one of the folk tales performed by her theatre company, Wonderful Beast, Benjamin Britten would probably appear as some sort of fairy godfather or kindly magician. Kihl met the composer on holiday in Aldeburgh in 1949, when her brother spotted him at a window and rang his doorbell for an autograph.

If Alys Kihl's life was the subject of one of the folk tales performed by her theatre company, Wonderful Beast, Benjamin Britten would probably appear as some sort of fairy godfather or kindly magician. Kihl met the composer on holiday in Aldeburgh in 1949, when her brother spotted him at a window and rang his doorbell for an autograph.

Kihl's divorced mother was struggling to bring up six-year-old Alys and her older brother Richard. With a kindness Kihl still marvels at, Britten befriended the family, encouraging them to move to Aldeburgh and employing Alys's mother as a secretary until she found her feet.

The annual festival founded by Britten, Peter Pears and Imogen Holst, had already made this unassuming Suffolk coastal villlage the location for an extraordinary concentration of international musical talent. In summer, the Kihl children would bump into Mstislav Rostropovich in the local shop or sit down to listen to Sviatoslav Richter in the seaside setting of the Jubilee Hall. Alys herself was taught the piano by Imogen Holst ("an incredible character and inspiring musician who has had a huge influence on my life") and later attended Dartington College of Arts and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

If you're going to found a theatre company, it helps to be able to put Adrian Mitchell and Roger Lloyd Pack on your artistic committee, make Sir James Spooner a trustee and ask Penelope Wilton to be a patron. Fortunately, ever after that moment in Aldeburgh, Kihl's life seems to have been unintentionally star-studded.

As a student at the Guildhall in the early Sixties, she found the temptations of London impossible to resist after her long immersion in the highly-charged, ascetic environment of professional music-making. She dropped out of the Guildhall and met her future husband George Hastings, an old Etonian jazz double-bass player and photographer who shared his flat with Dudley Moore. The couple partied in London with Peter Cook and the Establishment Club crowd, and with Italian film stars at La Strega in Porto Santo Stefano, a fashionable nightclub that was owned by George's brother-in-law. "It was all rather glamorous and great fun," she confesses.

Putting to one side her ambition to be a professional accompanist, Alys settled down to married life and making babies. It was only when her marriage to George ended (she has lived with the writer Claude Harz for the last 25 years) that she rediscovered her passion for music and drama (partly through her attendance at a quintessentially Seventies-sounding improvisational theatre group composed of resting actors such as Jack Shepherd and Shirley Ann Field).

There was also the need to support herself and her two children. She became a primary-school teacher at William Tyndale in north London, and was put in charge of the music department, where she developed music theatre work and brought professionals from the worlds of dance, theatre, opera and music into the school. Since going freelance, she has run her own company, Music in Schools - which helps teachers to develop their own skills and organise class music - and worked for Children's Music Workshop.

It was a production of Grimm's fairy stories at the Young Vic, directed by Tim Supple, that turned a long-nurtured dream into reality. "I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to start a company that put on those stories all the time. Why should they only be at Christmas? I'd learnt as a primary school teacher that if you want to keep a class gripped, the one sure way to do it is to read a fairy tale. There was a visible transformation in the children. But I feel very strongly that adults need these stories as much as children do. Their immediacy and simplicity means that they hold something for everybody, cross all boundaries and can communicate on the deepest levels."

Wonderful Beast (a phrase Kihl came across in the work of Marina Warner) was co-founded with theatre director Penny Cherns and equipped with a logo by Ralph Steadman, who donated a beastly drawing. Galvanised by an invitation to put on a show at the Rosemary Branch Theatre, Alys swiftly assembled her artistic committee, who between them gathered a group of patrons (which alongside Penelope Wilton include Gemma Jones, Simon Callow, Sir Ian Holm, Caryl Churchill and Marina Warner) and raised £9,000 for their first production, The Birth of Pleasure.

A version of the Cupid and Pysche story, written by the poet Jehane Markham and directed by Penny Cherns, the show had a magical, otherworldly yet sophisticated quality that even the hard seats and above-the-pub atmosphere of fringe could not dispel.

Kihl later went on courses in how to start a performing arts company, fundraising and tour booking (they do exist, and are run by the Independent Theatre Company). Although money worries make keeping the company afloat very difficult, Kihl is tremendously heartened by the way in which Wonderful Beast seems to attract not only favourable reviews but also enthusiastic support.

In one of its greatest coups so far, the artistic committee persuaded Jim Broadbent, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter and other "rather brilliantly talented and well-known friends" to perform "a feast of stories" as a benefit for the company. (The next benefit, featuring an equally starry cast, will take place at the Almeida on 1 and 8 October 2000.)

Three productions on and having paid her dues as a producer, Kihl was keen to direct. Wonderful Beast spent this summer touring the Highlands and Islands with a production of Tatterhood, a Norwegian folktale, with Kihl as director. She hopes to find the source for her next production on her doorstep, among the three hundred languages spoken in London. "These stories deal with every element and aspect of our lives, and the stages we pass through from infancy to death," she told a recent gathering of Beast supporters. "They amaze us, frighten us, disgust us, amuse us, thrill us, and excite us as they address the mystery of who and what we are. If that isn't the stuff of drama, I don't know what is."

For details of Benefits for the Beast, call the Almeida (020-7359 4404). For more information about Wonderful Beast, call or fax 020-7482 5893 or e-mail beast@dircon.co.uk

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