Hetty Feather is yet to officially set foot on the Vaudeville Theatre’s stage when I meet with author Jacqueline Wilson and adaptor Emma Reeves to talk about the feisty Victorian heroine’s West End debut.
It’s a day before the first preview and director Sally Cookson and the cast are busy in rehearsals putting the finishing touches to the production, which has already brought the circus-inspired tale of a gutsy orphan and her search for a family to venues across the UK and Dubai.
But while they’re perfecting the delivery of Benji Bower’s beautiful score and practicing the airborne acrobatics required to tell Hetty’s tale in all its theatrical glory, the writers’ work on the project is done. This is good news for us, as they take time out of their day to discuss making Hetty a West End star, the tears it took to get her there, how theatre brought the writing duo together and what other possible adaptations we could expect from them in the future.
What should audiences expect from Hetty Feather?
Wilson: They should expect colour, drama, excitement, a circus setting, which is extraordinarily dramatic, but also the grim reality of the institution that is the Foundling Hospital. Hetty Feather is a foundling and after an idyllic early childhood with her foster parents she has to go to the Foundling Hospital and stay there until she’s 14.
How has the story evolved from the page to the stage?
Reeves: We decided to set the story in a circus, which symbolises the freedom of Hetty’s imagination, as she spends a lot of time as a young girl confined in this very grim institution. The show was devised in the rehearsal room by myself, Sally [Cookson, the director], the cast and Benji Bower, the musician who has created lots of wonderful music that helps to tell the story. There’s an ensemble of six actors and two musicians, but it sometimes feels like a lot more, doesn’t it?
Wilson: It does. In fact, at the end there are often audible gasps when you see people looking and thinking ‘Where’s so and so?’ Sometimes it isn’t until the end that they realise all the cast, apart from Phoebe [Thomas, who plays Hetty], have doubled up.
Reeves: It’s a real ensemble piece of work and what is so wonderful about it – and what the actors and Sally have done – is that the circus performers are actors too and it never feels as if we’re stopping the show to do some circus stuff, it’s very much part of the story.
It sounds visually spectacular…
Wilson: It’s not only visually spectacular, the circus also gives an opportunity to have some real belly laughs. It’s been very cleverly done. In a story where great chunks of it are very sad and moving it’s wonderfully cathartic to have a lot of fun and a chance for the audience to let off steam and find something very funny. Quite literally within half an hour you can be roaring with laughter and sniffing back tears. It works a treat.
The story deals with some difficult subjects – fostering, bullying, death – how does the production convey these to children?
Reeves: It’s a very moving story and Sally did a lot of improvisation with the actors, and we spent a lot of time imagining being in that situation. Obviously a lot of what people went through [in Victorian times] is incredibly grim and it’s quite moving to think about. We were sometimes in tears discussing some of the research we did about what went on and, of course, the book itself.
Wilson: I have been thrilled in the way that Emma has been so clever in sucking out all the really essential bits of the story. And if there’s been some slight twiddling with the plot, it’s been done very sensitively so it actually works brilliantly on the stage. I couldn’t have been happier.
Why do you think it’s important for children to go to the theatre?
Wilson: I think it’s important to grab your audience when they’re young so that they can develop a theatregoing habit. It’s actually through theatre that I met Emma for the first time. I went to see [her adaptation of] Carrie’s War, which is one of my all-time favourite children’s books, and I did think to myself ‘How on Earth is this going to work on the stage?’ It was brilliant [shy laughter and gratitude from Reeves]! I loved it so much! Mark [Bentley] from Novel Theatre saw me in the audience and as I was going out he said ‘What did you think of it?’ and I burbled away enthusiastically. Later, when Carrie’s War came back to the West End, he asked if they could use a quote from me and at that time I remember remarking to a friend when I saw my quote at the theatre ‘Well, that’s the only time I’ll ever see my name in a West End theatre.’ Little did I know…
Hetty Feather is taking part in Kids Week. How important are promotions like this in making theatre accessible to children and their families?
Reeves: We promoted Carrie’s War as part of Kids Week and it [the promotion] has been growing and growing since then. I think it’s wonderful for children to go to the theatre. I obviously write for television as well, and Jacqueline writes books, but I think it’s great for children to access stories in all forms. It’s such an important part of development to empathise with other people and put yourself in different positions. With theatre, with its emphasis on play, often children like to play Hetty with their friends or act out the stories they’ve read in Jacqueline’s books, I think it’s great for them to be able to see live theatre, I think it stimulates their imaginations in wonderful ways.
Were you exposed to a lot of theatre as children?
Wilson: My first experience of a play, which was a very odd one as I was 12 or 13, was when my mum wanted to go and see a rather controversial play that had just come on at the Royal Court, A Taste Of Honey. My dad wasn’t interested so she took me. I felt very embarrassed because somebody did say to my mum ‘You do know this isn’t quite suitable for children?’ but she took me in anyway. My mum never gave a damn what people said. I was blown away by it. I had no idea that theatre could be so raw, so extraordinary and I was thrilled to bits with the grown-up subjects. It was a wonderful experience for me and I went back when it was on in the West End again, which was a very good production, but it was that shining one in about 1959 that stays in my mind. Interestingly there were musicians at the side of the stage, similar to the way our musicians work in Hetty Feather.
Reeves: I used to love going to the theatre. I remember seeing my first ever promenade production and being absolutely blown away by that when I was nine or 10 because the actors were amongst us and that was the most exciting thing ever.
If you were to work on another adaptation together, what would it be?
Wilson: I would be thrilled to bits if Emma wanted to work on anything at all. It would be wonderful if we did a further episode in Hetty Feather’s life, or my 100th book Opal Plumstead is about life in an Edwardian sweet factory for a 14-year-old girl down on her luck and she gets involved with the suffragettes so I don’t know if Emma would like to get her teeth into that one.
Reeves: Funnily enough I haven’t actually read that one because it’s not out yet but I’ve heard Jacqueline talking about it and just from what she’s said I’d love to work on that. I’d also love to do one of the Hetty Feather books or indeed any of them: The Bed And Breakfast Star, Dustbin Baby…
Wilson: Oh she’s clued up! [Laughs]