Theatremakers: Tall Stories

Published November 18, 2013

It has been more than a decade since the endearing creature with turned out toes and a poisonous wart at the end of his nose first stepped out of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s legendary picture book and on to the stage. Since its theatrical conception in 2001, The Gruffalo has travelled to almost every corner of the globe, from Malaysia and Hong Kong to Sydney and New York, stopping off at some of London’s best known theatres to delight audience members young and old with its story about a mouse who cunningly avoids becoming his fellow woodland creatures’ lunch by inventing the existence of a monster.

Behind The Gruffalo’s hugely successful stage presence is Tall Stories, a family theatre company that has built a strong reputation, receiving critical acclaim for its unique visual adaptations of timeless children’s stories. This Christmas the loveable monster with terrible tusks, and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws is back in the West End, so we took the opportunity to catch up with joint Artistic Directors Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell, only to discover that, if it wasn’t for a trip to the Scottish capital back in the 90s, The Gruffalo may have never made it to the stage at all.

“Tall Stories was never intended to be a theatre company producing work for family audiences exclusively,” Jacobs told me as she reminisced about the origins of the now leading family theatre company more than 16 years ago. “Toby and I met and decided to take some shows up to Edinburgh. We wanted to do some really good stories, stories that we really wanted to see on stage.”

The stories they chose were Alice And Mr Dodgson, a tale exploring the relationship between English author Lewis Carroll and the real-life inspiration behind one of his best-known books, and a series of fairy stories by Oscar Wilde. Both productions played to sold-out audiences at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1997. “The shows went down really well,” Jacobs told me, “and all the reviewers said ‘how nice to see a company produce work for families that’s not patronising, that’s high quality and has good production values!’”

Surprised that no one else was providing this sort of work on stage and thrilled to be able to fill a gap in the market, from that point on, Jacobs and Mitchell were inspired to create more work that families – both children and adults – could enjoy, as Jacobs explained: “We call ourselves a family theatre company because I hope that 60% of our audience are grown-ups and I hope that the shows are suitable for them as well as for younger members of the audience.”

The Gruffalo came several years after that first visit to Edinburgh, even before the success of Donaldson and Scheffler’s now world-renowned picture book. “We were in rehearsals when it won the Smarties Prize [the picture book won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize in 1991], Jacobs explained. “When we took it on we had no idea that the book or the show would be so successful.” But successful it certainly was, being described by The Scotsman as “a rare treat… that really is for all the family”, a review that the duo must have found extremely rewarding given their constant determination to create theatre that brings generations together.

Comparing his theatre company to Pixar, the big screen giant that has adults and children alike laughing out loud at the animated antics of a toy cowboy and wannabe astronaut, Mitchell explained how important it is that Tall Stories brings families together in auditoriums across the globe to indulge in a shared interactive experience, telling me: “There are fewer and fewer moments these days when whole families will sit down and enjoy something together; live theatre is the best at that because we’re all in one room experiencing it together.”

The Gruffalo marked Tall Stories’ first collaboration with writer/illustrator duo Donaldson and Scheffler, whose picture books have become well-known for their tuneful rhymes, simple storylines and unforgettable characters, with the north London-based company going on to adapt numerous other works by the pair, including Room On The Broom, The Gruffalo’s Child and its latest offering The Snail And The Whale.

Incorporating every rhyming couplet from the books, Tall Stories rarely changes anything when translating their stories to the stage, except for the addition of dialogue and songs. However, when it comes to putting the world’s largest animal on a stage, compromises have to be made, as demonstrated by The Snail And The Whale, which plays at the St James theatre this festive season.

The 2012 adaptation about a miniature mollusc and a not so miniature mammal, unlike the book, is told through the eyes of a young girl and her sea-faring father, an idea that came about when Jacobs and Mitchell read an article about an organisation called Storybook Soldiers. Giving mothers and fathers in the armed forces the opportunity to record stories for their little ones, the scheme provides children with goodnight stories from their mum or dad even when they are absent. “The Snail And The Whale is the story of a big creature who goes away and a little creature who desperately wants to go with him, and that just seemed like the perfect way to tell the story,” Jacobs explained.

With the Victoria venue and London’s West End welcoming Tall Stories’ tales this festive season, not to mention a recent Olivier Award nomination for Room On The Broom under their belt, surely next on the agenda for the family theatre company is world domination… if The Gruffalo hadn’t already achieved that. But, after speaking to the passionate Artistic Directors, this worldwide success and industry recognition is scarcely important, so long as they continue to tell great stories in innovative and imaginative ways for family audiences to enjoy.

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