New theatre company The Wrong Crowd are bringing its critically acclaimed debut show, The Girl With The Iron Claws, to London this season, playing at the Soho theatre this week before returning to the capital for a run at the Udderbelly Festival this June.
Puppetry, storytelling and music combine to create a coming-of-age tale for children and adults alike. The Wrong Crowd founders Rachel Canning and Hannah Mulder told us why audiences looking to be enchanted should come to see the show and introduce us to the strangely relatable Troll Queen.
Who should come to see The Girl With The Iron Claws?
Canning: Anyone with a sense of wonder who enjoys the art of storytelling and visually inventive theatre.
Mulder: Everybody! Anyone who has ever felt longing, wanted to run away or had to fight for what they love. Adults certainly shouldn’t feel they should have a child in tow, though children are very welcome. [Children] under eight will probably find it quite scary.
What is the show about?
Canning: A fearless young girl, coming of age, daring to take risks and finding love in an unlikely place.
Mulder: A wild and willful girl who refuses to do what she is “supposed” to and follows her heart’s desire into the woods and beyond.
Describe the production in six words.
Canning: Enchanting, atmospheric, visual, inventive, warm, rollercoaster.
Mulder: Magical, absorbing, powerful, funny, joyful, dark.
When and how did you discover the story it’s based on, The White Bear King?
Canning: As I child I was enchanted by Kay Nielsen’s illustrations in a book called East Of The Sun West Of The Moon, which is a version of the same ancient story which Hannah [Mulder] had also discovered in a different setting. We started talking about ideas for a show and realised that we’d both been entranced by this story in different ways and knew that it would make a great piece of theatre.
Mulder: I first heard the story whilst huddled by a woodburner in a yurt on Dartmoor in midwinter, being told by the brilliant storyteller Martin Shaw. That was in 2009. It stayed with me and when Rachael and I decided to start up the company together last year, I immediately wanted to work with it for our first show.
Why does the production use puppets?
Canning: Puppets appeal to people’s sense of wonder and play — if your imagination is open to the idea of an inanimate object having life then you are surrendering to wonder and immersing yourself into a world where anything is possible.
Mulder: They are such wonderful theatrical tools. You can go to places you can’t go in any other form and there’s a wonder in being able to breathe life into something inanimate. I think there’s something quite essentially human about doing that and the delight in it, perhaps especially in our technologically saturated world.
Who is your favourite character in the show and why?
Canning: I love the bear as a melancholic loner hero but the Troll Queen (played by Laura Cairns) is my favourite — she is gruesome but also hilarious and I feel for her. Really she’s just looking for a someone to love her and we can all relate to that!
Mulder: How can I possibly answer that question? I love them all! The protagonist is brilliant for her wildness. I also love the Troll Queen for not being a purely sanitized “evil” character and having a bit of dark fire of her own.
The show has been nominated for several awards. How does it feel when the show is recognised like that?
Canning: Exciting, an unexpected but welcome surprise.
Mulder: Exciting, humbling, encouraging.
Is there one award you’re most proud to have been nominated for?
Canning: We’re proud and grateful for any accolade, but the Total Theatre Emerging Artists felt like a big achievement.
Mulder: All of them mean a great deal to us, especially as this is our first show as The Wrong Crowd. But if pushed, perhaps the nomination from Total Theatre in the emerging category. They champion work that brings together different forms of theatre-making.
On The Wrong Crowd’s website you can sponsor a puppet. Why do you want people to do this?
Canning: Because puppets are for life, not just for Christmas.
Mulder: It’s been very exciting as a new company to be able to mount a national tour, but also a challenge to make it work financially. We’ve been supported by Arts Council England but still have a little further to go, so we’re hoping people will support us by sponsoring a puppet and helping to get The Girl With The Iron Claws out on the road.
Will The Wrong Crowd only make work for children?
Canning: We don’t want to set out our stall just yet — we hope that we can continue to make theatre that will appeal to people of all ages and that excites us as a creative team.
Mulder: Not necessarily and we don’t really see this work as exclusively for children, but for a mixed audience which can include children. I think for that reason it’s especially great for younger people because it’s not patronising.
Why do you think it’s important for children to go to the theatre?
Canning: It is so important for young minds to be stimulated through storytelling and visual creativity. I think it opens minds and encourages children to use their rich imaginations. We live in such a gadget-orientated world that it’s nice to be able to present a form of entertainment that gets back to basics and hopefully demonstrate that you can find play in almost anything by thinking beyond the smartphone, laptop or TV.
Mulder: Children need to play and theatre is just one of the ways in which we can play together. It exercises the imagination and combats a sense of isolation through the mutual experience of being in an audience. I also think stories are really crucial for us to navigate our lives through and it’s a learnt skill – I think childhood is where you learn it most easily.
Did you go to the theatre when you were a child?
Canning: Yes but not as much as I would have liked. I grew up in rural South Wales and theatre outings were few and far between so instead I got my theatrical fix though old movies, musicals and animation. Nowadays there are great companies in Wales making more work for children than when I was a kid.
Mulder: Yes, a lot. I grew up in London and my Mum still has a notebook of all the productions she took us to; it’s quite a remarkable read and I’m very grateful to her for all the care she took in choosing what to take us to. The Little Angel and the Unicorn theatre were favourite haunts.
What is your fondest childhood memory of the theatre?
Canning: I was seven and met Super Ted and Spotty backstage after the show at the New Theatre Cardiff. I was totally in awe, I couldn’t believe that my favourite cartoon character was actually taking to me!
Mulder: I especially remember being taken to Giselle by a friend of my family and dancing all the way home on the tube. I still love those shows that make you move differently, somehow, on the way home.
How do you want audiences to feel when they leave The Girl With The Iron Claws?
Canning: Enchanted and rewarded. Happy.
Mulder: Like they’ve been taken to another world for an hour and exercised a part of themselves they don’t always have the chance to be with.
What’s next for The Wrong Crowd?
Canning: Next is a terrifying interweaving collection of folktales. I can’t wait to get my fangs into this one! Watch this space people of earth!
Mulder: We’re working with some similarly little-known, dark fairy-tale material, weaving together a number of fantastic stories which feature the same character. The show will probably have quite a different feel but a similar intrinsic spirit. We’ve already had a week’s research and development on it at the Unicorn theatre and will have another in June. I can’t wait to get writing.
"We live in such a gadget-orientated world that it’s nice to be able to present a form of entertainment that gets back to basics"