Read about the show in The Guardian
Vanessa Thorpe – Sunday 6 March 2016 in the Observer paper, Guardian online.
It’s not just fluffy bunnies – here comes the dark side of Beatrix Potter
A puppet musical show co-written by Alan Ayckbourn will bring out the villainy in a nursery classic as part of celebrations to mark the 150th anniversary of Potter’s birth
Beatrix Potter’s bucolic tales about bunny rabbits, hedgehogs and puddleducks will be celebrated across Britain this summer as the country marks 150 years since the writer and illustrator’s birth. But now an unexpected literary ally, the playwright Alan Ayckbourn, has signed up to help ensure that the darker side of Potter’s enduring imaginative world is not forgotten.
The revered dramatist is writing the lyrics for a new children’s show called Where’s Peter Rabbit? that will star puppets, like the hit stage shows War Horse and The Lion King, and he is aiming to avoid sugary sentiment as he tackles these favourites of the nursery bookshelf.
The two darkly creative minds of Ayckbourn and Potter are well-matched, according to Roger Glossop, who is devising and designing the show at his Lake District theatre. Ayckbourn, he argues, has the wicked sense of humour needed for handling Potter’s often rather brutal tales, and his satirical eye was drawn to the project by Potter’s unflinching vision of “nature, red in tooth and claw”, as much as by the enduring charm of Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddleduck, Jeremy Fisher or Mrs Tiggy-Winkle.
“Her stories really are not all fluffy bunnies. I mean, Mr Tod, the fox in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, is one of the darker villains you will find anywhere in children’s literature,” he said. “It is a really foul piece and so, dramatically, that is terrific! We do wonder if some children in the audience may leave weeping, although we will certainly not try to scare them.”
The new show is based on five of Potter’s best-known stories and will be staged at The Old Laundry Theatre in Bowness-on-Windermere. Its producers then hope to take it on national tour. The production takes some of its inspiration from the successful use of puppetry seen recently in London’s West End, but its designs are closely based on Potter’s much-loved drawings.
“It will look very pretty, but we have taken our lead from The Lion King, in the way it brought animals to life on stage,” said Glossop. “Their team told us not to use puppeteers. They said instead we should use dancers and singers, because if they can do those things, then they can make the creatures do it too.”
Potter’s anniversary year has already seen the rediscovery of an unpublished story, as well as the prime ministerial gift of books as a diplomatic tool in Europe. Last week the Royal Mint also unveiled a new 50p coin bearing the image of Peter Rabbit. Now the producers of Where’s Peter Rabbit? plan to crown the celebrations with a show that comes with the blessing of Potter’s publishers, Warne.
“It is quite difficult, but generally you paint everything white first, as if it was her blank page, and then you paint on top of that.”
The production team have years of combined theatrical experience gained at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre and at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, where Ayckbourn was director for 37 years, but several of them also helped put together the displays at The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction, next door to the theatre. The attraction is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region and celebrates its own 25th anniversary this summer.
At a production workshop session last week the prototype puppets were put through their paces. Mr Brock the badger, from The Tale of Mr Tod, emerged from the wings and proved charismatic even in skeletal form. His handler for the day, technician Caroline Dalton, said he will eventually have moving eyes and ears. “He has a fight scene with the fox, so he needs to be flexible and strong, and it was important for us that he would have this stooping capacity, because badgers do hold their heads very low. We are working it out, but the more you work with the creatures, the more you start to feel confident about making them move in the right way.”
The badger’s arch-enemy, Mr Tod, is already equipped with a snarling muzzle and a shifty blinking mechanism. His prey, Jemima, will fly above the audience and her flapping feet will tuck back underneath. “She can even preen herself,” said Dalton. The Aylesbury duck’s trademark red silk shawl will be made for her by Lucy Nye, who is kitting out all the puppets and colour-matching Potter’s vivid yet subtle palette. Even Kep the dog, who only makes a fleeting cameo appearance, is being constructed with care. Workshop guru Phil Swift has built his canine frame by bending tough bamboo sticks over steam from a kettle.
“This is what we believe will make the show, the fact that, not just the main character, but every creature that comes on will have that same kind of quality,” said Glossop. “Alan’s great interest here in Bowness is the fact that we built a theatre. He loves the Lake District and it is wonderful he is working with us on this. He is very enthusiastic about the language of the books.”
It is unusual to create a show in the wake of a tourist attraction, rather than the other way around, but Glossop and his wife Charlotte Scott, who set up the The World of Beatrix Potter Attraction together, have the huge international appeal of Potter’s books to bank on. The tales are particularly popular in China. “Whatever you do in the theatre is going to be a leap of faith though,” said Glossop. “And it has been difficult to link the stories together. It would have been great to have Squirrel Nutkin in it too, but the idea is to tour the show if we can and add another two stories.”
Director and choreographer Sheila Carter has worked with Ayckbourn on many other plays, but has never directed puppets before. “It is a wonderful challenge. Bringing these nine major creatures to life on stage, with the help of a cast of five humans, is a great thing to do,” she said.
Ayckbourn has been writing the songs with musician Steve Edis, a composer who has worked on productions at the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company and who was recommended for the Potter project by comedian Victoria Wood. “I sent over about 12 musical ideas to Alan and he came back to me on two of them,” said Edis. “Since then we have exchanged ideas and now have a few over-arching themes and two songs that will give a basis to the rest of the score. We are not going to sound like standard ‘musical theatre’, I hope, so we don’t have each character coming out and singing a song and I have tried to root the music in the landscape, so the mood is pastoral.”
Edis and Glossop are both surprised there has been no other recent show based on Potter’s characters. In 1992 the Royal Ballet created a show from a 1971 dance film that has become a standard of the repertoire, and in the 1960s the composer Cyril Ornadel wrote songs for a successful series of dramatised recordings narrated by Vivien Leigh. Ten years ago London’s Unicorn Theatre also staged a small-scale production based on Potter’s stories, but without puppets or animal costumes.