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'Suddenly' James is just Peachy...
DAVID Wood, award-winning playwright of more than 60 children’s plays, can sum up what makes good children’s theatre in just three words: “lots of suddenlys”.
“There always needs to be something suddenly happening, maybe a new character or some music, a special effect or the story moving on in a new direction,” he explains.
“Suddenlys mean that children stay riveted to what’s happening on stage and don’t start fidgeting or needing the toilet – basically I’ve spent the last 45 years trying to stop children going to the loo.”
Wood’s plays include The Tiger Who Came to Tea, The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See and The Meg and Mog Show.
He has also adapted eight of Roald Dahl’s books for the stage and his latest, James and the Giant Peach, opens at Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre today and runs until Sunday.
Actor/musicians tell the story of young James, who is bullied by his two mean old aunts until a giant peach grows in his garden, marking the start of a magical voyage.
Helped by a cast of enchanted insects, James encounters stormy seas, sharks and the weather-controlling Cloud-Men in this tale of adventure and triumph over adversity.
Dahl’s story takes ideas from Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk, and Wood says this is one of the reasons they are still a hit with young readers today.
“Dahl was a great supporter of children and always saw things from their viewpoint,” he said. “That is why children love his books so much. A child is the hero and beats the odds to win in the end. He also did the best baddies – nasty aunts, witches, giants – kids still love his baddies, along with all his references to animals, insects, food and magic.
“These books are a challenge to adapt for the stage because Dahl had so many wonderful, creative ideas.
“For this play we need a peach that people can live in and stand on but with the right production – and this one really is very good – it can look terrific.”
Two of Dahl’s stories, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, are currently enjoying successful runs in the West End although Wood says his work is slightly different.
“It is true there is an explosion in family shows, and big theatre companies are starting to realise the commercial value of bringing these stories to the stage,” he says “But they are big family productions with something for everyone. What I do is write specifically with children in mind. It is theatre just for them. When I write, I assume the audience has never been to the theatre before, and therefore it is the most important day of their lives.
“I hope that adults like what they see on stage but I’m sure an equal amount of enjoyment comes from seeing their children so entranced.”
Wood admits that young theatregoers can be a tough crowd but that makes his work all the more enjoyable.
“Before the show it’s mayhem, all that chatter, fighting and eating,” he said. But as soon as the lights go down it all stops, children have a much greater attention span than we give them credit for – we just have to do it right and not be boring.
“We can’t take the story down lots of cul-de-sacs. We need good, clear storytelling, with lots of action and something to see and hear all the time.”
Wood feels that more investment is needed so there are more plays for the next generation of theatre-goers.
“Fifteen per cent of the population is under 12, but children’s theatre only gets one per cent of the funding,” he says. “We need children to be imaginative and creative – they should be reading for enjoyment not just counting the adjectives on a page.
“I hope shows like this encourage them to love the theatre from a young age, because there is nothing like the buzz it gives you.”
- The Birmingham Stage Company’s production of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach is on at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton from today until Sunday.
Call 02380 711811 or go to mayflower.org.uk for tickets.
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