Didn't you know? It's a stage Gruffalo

The live adaptation of a best-selling picture book is putting the magic back into children's theatre. Watch out, West End!
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The Independent Online

Thanks to the production company Tall Stories, which decided to take it to the stage in 2000, The Gruffalo has enjoyed a successful world tour; it was only a matter of time before it came to the West End.

The company's artistic director, Olivia Jacobs, is keen to differentiate this show from other children's productions. Children's theatre has suffered neglect, she says, because children have been entrapped by video games and films that stifle their imaginations. "The popularity of video games and films among young kids has led to low production values in many children's plays," Jacobs says. "Children's shows need to be more inventive. The Gruffalo allows children to let their imagination go.

"Give a child a dressing-up box, and they'll create a whole world," she continues. "With The Gruffalo we hope to have created the kind of place they'll love by using our own creativity and not much stuff. There are no gizmatronics in this production: no revolving stage or fancy props."

Tall Stories has retained the fairy-tale simplicity of Mouse's adventure through a magical wood by using all the original rhyming couplets from the book. The Gruffalo is the only character with an elaborate animal-like costume. "It is important that the audience can see the actors' faces throughout the show," says Jacobs. "The fact that the actors talk directly to the children makes the show more intimate."

Jacobs is concerned that many children's productions are patronising. "Actors talk down to children," she says. "They put on wide eyes and a big smile, and wear brightly coloured dungarees. Parents groan, and children find the performances only mildly entertaining."

The traits of the characters Mouse meets on his journey have developed from the animals' movements. The Fox, a wheeler-dealer, is sly and jumps around. He wears a tweed jacket and peaked cap and has long sideburns. The Snake slides from side to side with his legs together. "From that we had the idea of making him a bit of a ladies' man and a salsa dancer," explains Jacobs, who thinks the physical movements of the characters are integral to the production.

The music, directed by Jon Fiber, is also tailored to the characters. The Snake has a Ricky Martin-type salsa song; the Fox has a Madness-style ska song; and the Gruffalo's one sounds a bit like Billy Bragg, Jacobs says.

Tall Stories tries to involve the audience in its shows, encouraging them to sing and shout. "Not in a way that embarrasses them, though," Jacobs adds. "We want adults to enjoy the performances too. Parents aren't just there to buy the tickets. Many have forgotten just how much they too enjoy storytelling."

The Gruffalo has captured the hearts and eyes of three- to nine-year-olds (and their parents) because of its delightful story, says Jacobs. Mouse goes into a forest in search of nuts. To ward off predators, he invents an imaginary friend: a beast he calls the Gruffalo. Each time he meets a creature, it is scared away, until Mouse is suddenly faced with his hairy, poisonous-wart-nosed creation. "It's David and Goliath," says Jacobs. "The idea that the little man can win with wit and cunning is very popular, especially when you're young. The story makes the show."

Since its first performance five years ago in a studio theatre in Chester, The Gruffalo has grown enormously, says Jacobs. "As a company, we like collaborations and improvisation. We've been travelling so much that we haven't been able to have an elaborate set. But we do have spectacular lighting now. People expect children's shows to have high production values like the Mary Poppins musical in the West End, but that is expensive to do all the time. Production techniques should enhance rather than detract from actors' performances, and should always serve the story."

'The Gruffalo', Criterion Theatre, London WC2 (020-7413 1437) 19 July to 20 August