Up, up and away...

Director Anthony Clark has vivid memories of the magical children's book 'The Red Balloon'. So he adapted it into a musical. By Georgina Brown
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The Independent Culture
If you saw it or read it as a child, you won't have forgotten The Red Balloon. Nobody does. Albert Lamorisse's story of the little, lonely, skinny boy who finds a big, shiny, pushy balloon which magically follows him everywhere, getting him into all sorts of trouble and making him the envy of other children, impresses itself on a young mind as surely and sharply as such great tales, part magic, part morality, as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Like the very best stories it works in the way described last week by Philip Pullman, winner of the Carnegie Medal: "Stories work secretly, and almost never in ways we can predict. They work when they're not explained. They work when a reader encounters a character whose fate rings true, and when a thrill of recognition makes the skin prickle or the heart pound. They work in ways we can't even explain to ourselves."

Some remember The Red Balloon as enchanting, a perfect dream come delightfully true. One man recalled it as a mite spooky. As a child he didn't like the way the balloon wouldn't leave Pascal alone. It just hung around him, bursting his bubble. Others were haunted by the image of the sad deflated balloon, brutally murdered by the bully-boys. "It wasn't until I was older and saw someone dead, literally with no air in them, that I thought of The Red Balloon again, and realised it had been a metaphor for death," says Patsy Rodenberg, the National Theatre's voice coach. Others watched Pascal being taken up, up and away into the sky by the balloon population of Paris and they were desperately afraid because they didn't know where he was going and whether he would ever come back.

Few, however, have memories quite as vivid as the director Anthony Clark who has adapted the film of the book into a children's musical which opens at the National Theatre this week. "I think I was five and I was at a French school in Algiers - it was incredibly strict and I didn't speak French, and I had to write with a fountain pen, just like Pascal, which I'd never done before. One day they showed The Red Balloon projected on to a sheet in a big classroom. While I was watching the film I desperately needed a pee. The trouble was we were sitting on the floor and when I stood up the shadow of my head was projected on to the screen, so all the children shouted and I had to sit down again and I wet myself. When the film ended I was surrounded by accusing boys. Just like Pascal, a loner. I remember the sudden empathy I felt with him."

Nevertheless, there can be few surer ways of trampling on dreams than turning a movie into a stage show. But Anthony Clark hatched this project long before the fiasco of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Les Enfants du Paradis, or the disappointment of Martin Guerre, which might have deterred him. When he was artistic director of Manchester's Contact Theatre, one of very few theatres committed to producing theatre for young people, Clark decided to focus on that most neglected sector, the very young, and when he couldn't find a script that he felt passionate about he decided to write one himself. Having only written before for adults (two shows at the Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, a play about Lorca to run in tandem with a Lorca production at the National), he felt safer with an adaptation. The Red Balloon fitted because it had a title that meant something to some people and, more important, it had very little dialogue. ("Balloon, balloon!" is, I recall, the sum total.) "It meant you could have a much freer hand while reflecting the spirit of the original. People have said that it does that and more," says Clark.

The film is wonderfully rich with suggestion and remarkably short of stated fact, which has allowed Clark freedom to flesh out the tiniest vignettes: the cat in the street that features for a second or two, the loneliness of the only child, the pressures of living in a flat where no pets are allowed, the observation that all the characters other than the children are very old. "Putting it on stage has meant you can try to explore in more depth the frustrations, aspirations, contradictions and ambiguities of a child's experience," says Clark. "You can also make very ordinary things very important, so the finding of the balloon on the lamp-post - probably five seconds in the film - can be explored imaginatively so that the child wonders who it might belong to. Making the stage musical has for me been about exploring the potential of every moment, giving it as much resonance as you can."

Unlike many pieces of children's theatre which strain - often too hard - to appeal simultaneously to adults and children, Clark has concentrated on the childish response, leaving adults to take what they want. "Adults have always wanted to define the story as being about the spirit of the imagination, the loss of innocence or whatever. But as a director I think to define is to diminish. I hope that for a child what is seemingly a simple story is actually more complex. Where an adult may immediately want to cast the child as the protagonist in a rather sentimental way, a child will sometimes see him as selfish or a victim and their responses may fluctuate throughout."

Unfortunately, Clark's initial efforts to track down the rights to The Red Balloon failed so he sent a letter to the only Pascal Lamorisse listed in the Paris telephone directory. Four years later his call was returned and he was given the all-clear. In the meantime, however, he had had to find an alternative show. He chose Raymond Briggs's The Snowman, again because it was wordless and again because in it the child is cast in the role of an adult to show other children his intensely felt world. "All the mundane business of their world becomes special in the process of showing it to someone else," says Clark.

He claims to know very little about children's theatre and even less about children. "What I do know from observing my own [four, aged from two to 11] is that you can't define the quality of their experience or underestimate what it is they find important or why. For children the world is much richer because they are working it out. Unlike adults, they don't jump to conclusions, bypass things or take a short cut." And he feels strongly that children's theatre should not attempt to do what in- yer-face television and Walt Disney can do better. "It should be quite other. I have seen tiny children sit through this play for an hour and a half with no bottom shuffling. Whether it is the mesmeric effect of watching a balloon on stage or whether they empathise in some profound way with the protagonist, I don't know. I certainly don't believe that you have to cast the children in a particular role as heroes or villains. A play for children should probably start through the eyes of a child and be child-centred, and should express very clearly what the child is feeling.

"Bright colours and loud music aren't what matters. I don't want to manipulate children in that way, whipping them up and exhausting them and then whipping them up again and again."

Indeed, Clark has gone so far as to deconstruct the illusion of the red balloon's independence and autonomy and in doing so he has created something even more magical. "I knew when I wanted to adapt The Red Balloon that it was important to reveal how it works. I didn't want people sitting there thinking, 'that's very clever, I wonder how they do that', so that we had to keep topping the illusion with something better."

At a time when children's theatre is the lowest priority for the majority of theatre companies, it is extremely heartening to find such talent and commitment as Clark's and that of the composer, Mark Vibrans. "There are possibilities in the medium," Clark says. "You can speak to children in a profound way in the theatre - there are a lot of people in a place together feeling something that is important to the business of growing up. Unfortunately, it is not always seen to be something important. If it is to be done properly and have the status it deserves, it must be subsidised."

Ironically, perhaps, Clark's children's piece is his biggest hit so far. And the scale of the National's production - 15 actors (it can be done by any number from 11 to 40) - and all the back-up talent the National provides can only add polish to a truly enchanting and beautifully staged show. This is its fourth production - each time it is tweaked a little to incorporate new material, new music, new choreography. For example, in the latest production, a scene has developed in which the child speaks while the parents argue in song, so creating the distance between them. "I'm still working on it," grins Clark. "But it's rumoured that Lamorisse wrote 42 different versions of The Red Balloon. So I don't feel at all ashamed that this is my fourth go."

n 'The Red Balloon' is in preview at the Olivier National Theatre, London SE1 (0171-928 2252). To 30 Aug