We caught up with West End playwright and laureate, David Wood OBE, for a chat about his hilarious production of The Tiger Came To Tea, which is coming to the UAE this month.
David Wood is to London’s West End theatre, what Andrew Lloyd Webber is to musicals. With a career spanning more than four decades, he is the man behind the biggest children’s shows on stage today. The BFG, George’s Marvellous Medicine, Shawn the Sheep, The Gingerbread Man and Tom’s Midnight Garden are just a snippet of the 75 plays he has written especially for children.
You were initially a mainstream actor. Why did you decide to dedicate your time to children’s theatre?
In my teens, I entertained children with magic at birthday parties. And, in my early twenties, I ran Saturday morning children’s theatre with stories, songs, magic and audience participation. This led to me being asked to write a children’s play for the Christmas slot in 1967, and I never looked back! My acting career continued alongside my writing and directing children’s plays for about twenty years. But it was clear that children’s theatre was going to win! I felt, and still feel, passionate about it. I believe that it triggers children’s imaginations in a unique way.
You have adapted a staggering seven Roald Dahl novels to the stage. Which one has been your favourite and why?
In fact my eighth Roald Dahl adaptation was staged last year! The Magic Finger was seen in California. My favourite is probably The BFG, mainly because it was my first Dahl adaptation. I directed the original production, which proved incredibly popular on tour and in the West End. The relationship between Sophie and The Big Friendly Giant is both moving and inspirational, I believe. And the other Giants are really nasty, yet amusing, in the best Dahl tradition of brilliant baddies.
You created the massively successful Gingerbread Man stage show which is still enjoying success globally. What inspired that idea?
I had agreed to create a new musical production for a regional theatre’s Christmas show. They urgently wanted a title so that they could create a mobile float to go through the streets on carnival day. Faced with making a quick decision, I suddenly thought of the title The Gingerbread Man, which was accepted straightaway. Thinking about it, I realised that I did not want to adapt the classic fairy tale in which the fox eats the hero at the end. Gradually the idea of setting the play on the shelves and the worktop of a Welsh dresser grew in my head, and the characters of Salt and Pepper, as well as The Old (Tea) Bag emerged. My mother-in-law had a rather splendid dresser in Cornwall, which became the model in my mind! The play was eventually turned into a book and a television animation series.
The Tiger Who Came To Tea is coming to the UAE this month. Why did you choose this particular story for the stage?
The central, somewhat surreal, idea is that a mother and daughter are spending an ordinary day at home, when the doorbell rings. Sophie opens the door to find a tiger, who invites himself to tea and proceeds to eat and drink everything he can find. The most famous line is, ‘He drank all the water in the tap!’ I particularly like the story, because the fantasy idea springs from reality. The everyday quality at the outset, as Mummy and Sophie prepare to have tea, quickly develops into a fantastic adventure.
Why do you think it’s always been so loved by kids?
It has classic ingredients that children like! An animal, food, a family situation – and magic. By that I really mean the potential for theatrical magic. The tiger has to eat lots of food. To make this happen on stage, he needs illusion and magic tricks.
It must be difficult to make a book that takes just five minutes to read, into an hour-long show. How do you manage that?
I decided to expand the story by using episodes in the book that were referred to, if not fully described. So we do a day in the life of Sophie, starting with Daddy at breakfast being late for work. As the day progresses, the milkman and the postman both arrive before Daddy returns from work, after, of course, the tiger has made his teatime visit. I incorporated some songs, some of which are audience participation songs. Even though the book has few words, the content is considerable.
Young children have short attention spans. How do you ensure that your productions keep them entertained?
Children only have short attention spans if they are bored. I try to make sure, through using various techniques, that they remain interested throughout the play, wanting to know what happens next, joining in, understanding and appreciating the story, and not being tempted to let their attentions drift off or think about the possibility of going to the lavatory! I use a lot of ‘suddenlies’, both in the dialogue and in the action, to make sure they don’t let their eyes leave the stage!
Why is theatre such an important medium for today’s kids?
Theatre is a community experience. Children react en masse very differently from individually. An excitement can be generated in a theatre that is, in my opinion, unique and infectious, exciting and potentially empowering. These days it worries me that many children spend so much time on their own in front of a screen. Theatre brings them together to experience a story told by real people in real time. This is special. And I believe that theatre can help children see all sides of a situation, hopefully leading to tolerance and balance.
The Tiger who Came To Tea is on at the Abu Dhabi Theatre on April 26, and at DUCTAC Centerpoint Theatre, Mall of the Emirates from April 29 to May 1, 2015. Schools rate: stalls Dhs100, balcony Dhs90 stalls. Public rate: stalls Dhs150, balcony Dhs100. Suitable for ages 3+. For more information call 052 919 5100 or visit www.artforall.ae or book directly via www.ductac.org.