Grand day out at the theatre

They have shuffled around in their Plasticine splendour for so long it's inconceivable that Wallace and Gromit could go live. On stage. But they have, and James Rampton has met their human alter egos
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A man in a regrettable brown chunky-knit tank-top and plaid slippers, his brow furrowed with concentration, is working painstakingly at a drawing- board. He turns the paper towards us to reveal what he has been doing: playing noughts and crosses with himself. His long-suffering dog is given to occasionally looking up from his evening paper and shaking his head pityingly.

Welcome to the daft world of Wallace and Gromit. The difference this time is that rather than being made out of Plasticine, the characters are very much flesh and blood. Yes, it's Wallace and Gromit Alive on Stage, an all-new adventure for Nick Park's Oscar-winning creations, which starts a seven-week run at Sadler's Wells in London tonight.

The show's creator, Andrew Dawson, said: "We're making real contact with the audience. They get to meet Wallace and Gromit in the flesh. Reality comes as a bit of a surprise. We're so used to seeing Wallace and Gromit in their TV form that it's nice to think you could get up and shake their hands."

After a rehearsal in the disused canteen of a municipal building in Bow, east London, the cast gather round to share their thoughts on why the play's the thing.

Angela Clerkin, who plays Feathers, the dastardly penguin bent on revenge against our heroes, said: "Children are implicated in the show. They're more emotionally involved than when they watch it on TV. I can tell how well I'm doing my job by the number of kids who cry and get carried out," she adds with a suitable baddie's cackle.

"From the start, I told the actors not to think about Plasticine, but about what sort of people their characters were," declares Dawson, who also brought Thunderbirds FAB to the stage. "I didn't want them to carry that Plasticine-ness around with them. They'd have looked stiff and inhuman. What we've gone for is a half-way house, so Wallace's hands are splayed out and he always stands with his legs slightly apart as he does in the films; we've tried to capture the essence of what the characters would be like if they were human."

Paul Filipiak, who plays Wallace, has trained at the celebrated Jacques Le Coq mime school in Paris. From the moment he walks on stage with that familiar, almost imperceptibly jerky gait accompanied by continual umming and aahing, it is clear he has Wallace down to a tee. He confirms that subtle traces of the character's Plasticine past life remain in his stage incarnation. "Without going into robotic land, I broke every scene down into a series of individually planned movements," Filipiak reveals. "It becomes like choreography. Audiences see me moving like a human but at the same time not quite."

In the early stages of preparation, Andrew Dawson toyed with the idea of animatronic effects and the sort of foam heads used in the Postman Pat stage show. In the end, though, he decided that such pyrotechnics could actually be a barrier to believability. "Take Gromit," he says, "I didn't want to put him in a big dog suit, because then he'd just be a caricature. He'd be like a big cuddly toy with no character. In the films, Gromit is a teenager, a person. You have to be able to see his eyes and his personality in order to meet him and feel something for him. When you make eye contact, it's human. He gives Wallace these sidelong glances which are very boyish."

Lloyd-Evans agrees: "As long as you get the characters right, the actors could be wearing sou'westers. Nick Park has drawn these archetypal relationships that appeal across the adult-child boundary, which means you can put them on the stage without having to put the actors in foam suits."

It is true that the interplay between the characters makes us keep coming back for more Wallace and Gromit. The relationship between the two protagonists, for instance, is based on the entirely plausible role-reversal principle: the child is in fact a parent to the supposedly more responsible adult.

Clerkin ventures: "Everyone has a Wallace in their life - a boss, or a father, or a husband."

For Dawson, the enduring appeal of Wallace and Gromit lies in the fact that "they're quintessentially English - like toast. Have you noticed that you never get a good slice of toast when you're away?

"There's something safe and comforting about their world," Dawson continues. "There are no busy streets, it's an old England before motorways and mobile phones - and people have a nostalgic thirst for that. It's about friendships and being nice to each other. Even when Wallace has been nasty to Gromit, we know they'll always end up having tea and biscuits together around the fire."

Altogether now: aah.

`Wallace and Gromit Alive on Stage', Sadler's Wells at the Peacock Theatre, Kingsway, London, WC2 (0171 314 8800), until 10 January.

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