Marie-Claire Chappet talks to stage director Sally Cookson about making theatre for children, her latest project and what makes a great Christmas show. Plus the best festive productions in the capital.
Tell us all about your new production of 101 Dalmatians.
Ali Robertson, of the Tobacco Factory Theatre, came up with the idea of turning 101 Dalmations into a Christmas show and invited me to direct it. I jumped at the chance! It’s been a favourite book of mine since I was a child – and it has all the ingredients for a perfect Christmas show, a great adventure with an enormous heart and wonderful characters!
How are you rising to the challenge of tackling such an iconic story?
I think at its heart 101 celebrates the importance of ‘family’ and all things ‘doggy’– and as a company we will endeavour to be faithful to the book but also add a few little moments of our own.
What draws you to family theatre?
I think the simple answer is I like making work that appeals to all ages and seeing the different generations engage in a production together. At a Christmas show the theatre audience will be made up of a wide variety of ages ranging all the way from five to 95 – and they all get something slightly different from the occasion. I feel that the sense of a shared experience among the generations is something really special.
Do you have a favourite Christmas show or a favourite childhood memory of theatre at Christmas?
I was taken to the pantomimes at The Leatherhead Theatre as a child and have a vivid memory of the good fairy’s magic wand. It was silver and sparkly and I was convinced it was real. It made me feel all tingly. It made me want to be on stage and triggered my career!
What special considerations, if any, go into making a family show?
I don’t think I treat working on a family show any differently to when I’m working on an adult piece, it’s just the material that’s different. When I started making work for early years audiences (three to six years) I quickly realised that unless a child was engaged during a performance they would let you know in no uncertain terms. “I don’t like it” and “I want to go home now” were comments that chilled me to the bone and I strived to ensure that every moment was precisely and meticulously crafted. Of course, adult audiences seldom shout out: “I don’t like it” and “I want to go home now” – they are far too polite – but I always try and imagine that it could happen and that forces me to strive for clarity and precision in every moment.
You adapted We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Stick Man beautifully for younger audiences. What are the challenges of adapting a picture book into a fully-fledged piece of theatre?
When you’re adapting an iconic picture book, it’s vital to retain the essence and heart of the book but hugely important to remember that you’re turning it into theatre, thereby changing it into something new entirely. I enjoy interpreting, adapting and bringing the imagination of the creative team and actors into the equation. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt became a celebration of ‘playing’ and everything used in the show could be found in a primary school classroom or play box at home. For example the mud became brown poster paint, the river was created using blue buckets with real water inside and the grass was long, flappy strips of plastic. Children come away from the show and go straight home and act out what they’ve just seen on stage – pulling everything out from under the kitchen sink in the process and making a lovely happy mess. I always strive to engage a child’s imagination when making early years work and be as playful as possible.
Do you ever think about your own children when you’re in the process of creating children’s shows?
My son Arthur is 20 and my daughter Nell is 17 – how did that happen? They are very fond of a show called No Loud Bangs which was performed at Bristol Old Vic over 10 years ago. It was about the relationship between a boy and his toys and was touching and funny. They adored it and still talk about it today. I always think about them when making a show. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt came about because they were obsessed with the book and having read it for about the hundredth time, it was then that the idea for a show
popped into my head.
What do you think makes a great Christmas family show?
A great stage show for Christmas time has to have a fantastic story and big heart– and something that reminds us of what it is to be human.
The Top 10 Christmas Productions in London
1. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
C S Lewis’ classic children’s tale.
30 Nov-4 Jan | Rose Theatre, Kingston
020 8174 0090 | rosetheatrekingston.org
2. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
Michael Rosen’s beloved story book told
with stunning puppetry.
10 Dec-4 Jan | Albany Theatre, Deptford
020 8692 4446 | thealbany.org.uk
3. Slava’s Snowshow
Back by popular demand after a sell-out
world tour, this inventive mix of clowning
and knee-deep snow is a sure to be a hit with
your Little Londoners.
17 Dec-6 Jan | Royal Festival Hall,
0844 875 0073 | southbankcentre.co.uk
4. The Wind in the Willows
The Olivier Award-winning production
returns to the West End.
3 Dec-17 Jan | Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand
0844 482 9675 | vaudevilletheatre.org.uk
This Christmas, don’t miss the revival of this
acclaimed theatrical adaption of Zizou
Corder’s bestselling novels.
17 Dec-10 Jan | The Tricycle Theatre, Kilburn
020 7328 1000 | tricycle.co.uk
6. Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas
After two successful years on stage, this is a
magical must-see for children under six.
14 Nov-31 Dec | Lyric, Hammersmith
020 8741 6850 | lyric.co.uk
Inventive storytelling and beautiful puppetry
bring a fresh spin to the fairy tale.
20 Nov-1 Feb | Little Angel Theatre,
0207 226 1787 | littleangeltheatre.com
8. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
A Christmas show of seismic proportions.
8 Nov-3 Jan | Dominion Theatre,
Tottenham Court Road
020 7927 0900 | dominiontheatre.com
9. The Way Back Home
The Young Vic and the ENO, reimagine the
famed children’s book by Oliver Jeffers.
11-23 Dec | Young Vic, Waterloo
0207 922 2922 | youngvic.org
Nothing says Christmas like the Nutcracker.
Journey back in time with the English
National Ballet, to a frost-covered, gas-lit
London. Book now to avoid disappointment.
11 Dec-5 Jan | London Coliseum
020 7581 1245 | ballet.org.uk
101 Dalmatians runs from 26 Nov-12 Jan at Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bristol.