Over the last 30 years theatre company Complicite has built a reputation for creating some of the world’s most imaginative, innovative and magical theatrical productions. From 2012’s Olivier Award nominated Master And Margarita to the 1999’s Mnemonic, the company is no stranger to the word seminal or the experience of picking up a few awards along the way. But for its 30th year the company is trying something totally new, a production for families and young audiences.
Adapted from the hugely popular trilogy by Zizou Corder – the pen name of Louisa Young and her daughter Isabel Adomakoh Young – Lionboy tells the story of a young boy with a very special power, to talk to cats. When his parents are kidnapped, Charlie sets off on an adventure-filled rescue with a difference, joined by a pride of performing lions.
Here the show’s director and founding Complicite member Annabel Arden and Lionboy leading man Adetomiwa Edun tell us what audiences can expect from the show and why they believe children’s theatre is so vital.
Describe the show in six words.
Arden: Imaginative, direct, musical, beautiful, eccentric, thoughtful.
When did you first become aware of Zizou Corder’s stories and why did they appeal to you for a stage adaptation?
Arden: I was aware of these stories when they were first published about 10 years ago. Also Louisa Young, who is one half of Zizou Corder, has been my friend since we were both 10. The idea of adapting a book with lions and so many interesting ideas in it gradually appealed to me more and more, and the central character of Charlie, his coming of age and his fight against corporate greed seemed timely.
The lead character can speak to cats. What special power do you both wish you could have?
Arden: My superpower would be to be able to fly and not to need any sleep
Edun: Teleportation! Without a doubt. I love leisurely wandering, but there are times when you just want to be wherever it is you’re heading. Make it so!
Who is your favourite character in the show?
Arden: Charlie is my favourite character because he is like lots of children: funny, brave, loyal and clever. But unlike lots of children he has the opportunities to use these qualities and he knows that much is expected of him.
Complicite normally creates shows for adult audiences. Has it been a very difference process making a show for a family audience?
Arden: Each show has a slightly different process depending on the material you are working with and this one was definitely a voyage of discovery. We are still discovering things as we meet more and more audiences.
Is it very different acting in a family show then an adult production or television show?
Edun: Children live with their emotions much closer to the surface than most adults do, so they’re extremely responsive. You’ve got to be ready for them to interact in all sorts of surprising ways, but that’s fantastic; theatre should be engaging.
Why do you think it’s important for children to go to the theatre?
Arden: I think children should go to the theatre because at its best theatre makes an appeal to the imagination and we now know that the imagination is a real force in our brains. When we imagine things the entire circuitry of our brain changes and this power is in everybody, but it is like a muscle, it needs exercise. If you have a powerful imagination you can imagine how things could be different. That is essential in your life. If you need things to change, you need to imagine the change in order to affect it. So theatre for children is essential to develop the imagination, to experience pleasure and seriousness in large groups in public, and to be entertained by living beings!
Did you go to the theatre when you were a child?
Arden: I went to the theatre as a child and have many, many memories. Two of my fondest are going to the Little Angel Marionette theatre and going to see A Flea In Her Ear at the Old Vic where I fell in love with the actors Geraldine McEwan and Robert Laing and decided I would have to be an actor.
Edun: There wasn’t half as much theatre on offer when I was a child in Lagos as there is in London, but I remember a particular night in a tiny place called the Peck Repertory. I was outraged that the head of a household was being bamboozled by a pious fraud; his friends and family couldn’t get through to him and there was nothing I could do about it either. The play (I later discovered) was Tartuffe, and is still surprisingly contemporary…
What is your favourite children’s story?
Arden: I have too many favourite children’s stories to pick one. But I love Alice In Wonderland and all Maurice Sendak and Jan Pienkowski’s books, and I really admire the writers Phillip Pullman, Leon Garfield and Patrick Ness. Oh, and not forgetting Rosemary Sutcliffe and especially Alan Garner. I love all kinds of children’s books if they are really imaginative and the writing is rich and sophisticated, because I think children’s facility with language is often underestimated. If you assume children can’t deal with complex language then they won’t. I think in general children rise to any challenge you give them if you make it clear that you believe that they are absolutely able to do so. I love words and I love pictures. Both together is the best, which is why I love Alice, but it must be with the original drawings. Oh and OF COURSE Beatrix Potter and everything Edward Ardizzone illustrated especially Nurse Matilda (now better known as Nanny McPhee).
Edun: The Jungle Book. Mowgli has the best of both worlds: he goes back to live with his own kind, but having been raised in the jungle has experiences and bonds with his animal friends. I think there’s a small part in all of us that wishes we could communicate with animals, know what they’re thinking and see the world through their eyes.
How do you hope audiences will feel when they leave Lionboy?
Arden: I hope audiences will leave Lionboy feeling touched, heart-warmed and having had a good time.