Wednesday 12 December 2012
This article originally appeared in the Cambridge News
As George’s Marvellous Medicine opens in Cambridge, EMMA HIGGINBOTHAM talks to playwright David Wood OBE about the joys – and challenges – of writing children’s theatre.
I’ve often been quoted as saying that I don’t like children very much, and I’ve never really said that – but I’m not somebody who gravitates towards children at all," admits David Wood.
"But I see them as a challenge: how to entertain them, and keep them riveted, and make them not want to go to the loo. Within the theatre, that is," he adds with a laugh. "I don’t mean in life."
The notion that Wood - one of the UK’s most prolific, inventive and downright wonderful children’s playwrights - is anything short of Father Christmas is, to be honest, something of a surprise.
Yet this lack of love for small people clearly has no affect on his work. Since 1967, Wood has penned more than 60 plays for children, both his own stories and adaptations of classics such as Meg and Mog, Tom’s Midnight Garden and The Tiger Who Came to Tea - which sold out at the Corn Exchange earlier this year.
But today we’re chatting about George’s Marvellous Medicine, this year’s Corn Exchange Christmas show. And it is, admits Wood, one of his favourites.
"I’ve been very lucky: in my time I’ve adapted eight Roald Dahl stories, and this one was great fun to do. I’ve always been delighted by the way it’s received.
"It’s a typically anarchic Dahl story but, as so often with Dahl, it’s got a wonderful sense of justice about it. We’re born with an innate sense of justice, and children know it from a very, very early age. ‘It’s not fair’ is one of the first things they learn to say."
Look at storytelling through the ages, he adds, and you’ll see that the theme is repeatedly used to involve the audience emotionally: "So we all root for Cinderella, for instance, because she’s unfairly treated.
"George is quite an interesting one, because the baddie – George’s grandmother – is an adult, which is typical in Dahl. And it’s no good pretending that grandma is anything else but really loathsome: she takes great delight in trying to frighten George.
"So although some people would say that the book is an idiot’s guide of how to kill off your grandmother and not get caught, it’s much more than that, because in many ways she deserves what she gets."
Yet being Dahl, this is no worthy, moralistic tale. Comedy very definitely takes centre stage, not least with the medicine George devises to ‘cure’ his grandma – a heady concoction featuring the likes of floor polish, dandruff shampoo and sheep dip, "and when she takes it, magically she grows and bursts through the roof. So there’s a lot of fantasy and humour, and children find that very, very funny."
Having a young protagonist with whom kids can identify is also key to the play’s success: "Dahl was brilliant at that," says Wood. "You have all these children as the main characters, and nearly all of them are disadvantaged in some way: Sophie in The BFG is an orphan, the boy in The Witches – his parents are killed on Page 2, and with James from James and the Giant Peach, I think his parents are killed on Page 1. Eaten by a rhinoceros! And yet he’s so plausible, so believable. He is a remarkable author, and children still relate hugely to him."
Wood was just 6 when he chose a career in entertainment, a decision triggered by a music hall-style TV programme. "There was this man playing a ukulele and singing with a troupe of dancing girls behind him, and I remember thinking ‘I want to do that!’" he recalls. "I don’t know whether I wanted to sing the song, or kick my legs in the air, but certainly I knew there was something about it that fascinated me."
He was serious, too: by the age of 10, Wood was performing puppet shows, by 12 he was doing magic at children’s parties, by 14 he was singing in a dance band.
As university beckoned, Wood tried to get into Bristol to read drama - but was turned down, "and I thought well that’s it, my life is at an end now." His teachers persuaded him to try for Oxford and, to his surprise, he won a place: "and I had the most wonderful three years, where I did more drama than I would have done at drama school. I did very little work, I’m afraid..."
Tellingly, Wood’s shows did rather better than the usual student productions: a revue he wrote and performed with three fellow Oxonians even transferred to the West End. Not surprisingly he was snapped up by a rep company, where he both acted and directed.
"They knew that I did a bit of magic, so I started doing Saturday morning children’s theatre, and it built and built and got very popular. And then they said would I be able to write the Christmas show?"
And so it was that Wood penned his first children’s play, an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Tinder Box. Was it any good?
"Not really, no! But it was good enough for me to be asked to write again the following year. And the second one I wrote, The Owl and the Pussycat Went To See (CORR) ended up being hugely successful. The way the children reacted was just so extraordinary, and I just knew that it couldn’t stop there, I had to do something with it. And 45 years later, I’m still doing it."
So what’s his secret? "I don’t know," shrugs Wood. "I’ve never really known. I feel I’ve got antenna which tell me whether things will work with children, put it that way.
"But I was never an avuncular person to whom children came running. I mean they do: if I go to a school and they’ve seen me work, they all come rushing up and I get mobbed like a popstar. But that’s a different thing: that’s me as a performer.
"I’m very, very good at entertaining children, I know that. The best thing I do is I can go in front of 250, 300 children and I can entertain them for an hour, on my own, whether it be talking to them, or doing magic. But give me two children in a room and I’m not nearly so good, even with my own daughters," he smiles.
Yet avuncular or not, Wood is a man on a mission. "I want children to actually want to be glued to what they see, and, at the end, to want to come back to the theatre. That, to me, is the most important thing, and it is a huge challenge. But when you get it right, and see them engrossed, it’s a wonderful feeling."