All power to the elbows of producers Kenny Wax and Nick Brooke, who appear to have pulled off something many of us children’s theatre folk thought was an impossible pipe dream! Let me explain.
Touring children’s shows to theatres for full week runs has always posed a problem. The producer usually wants to play only matinees. Yes, some shows, including Vicky Ireland’s, Jacqueline Wilson adaptations and my Dahl adaptations, have a wide age-range appeal and can attract families in the evening as well as schools during the day. But a play for primary school-age children or under-fives is unlikely to attract an evening audience even on a Friday or Saturday. Theatre managers understandably resist a week of matinees only – no bar takings or restaurant business. So sometimes they suggest the children’s show might play on top of the evening adult show. Sounds like a good idea. But, if the children’s show has a full set and lighting rig, it often won’t fit on top of the adult show without compromise. And, traditionally, the adult show will always assume priority! So the children’s show suffers by having to make unwelcome adjustments. This can lead to unpleasantness. I remember having to summon a regional theatre manager from his bed at two o’clock in the morning to come and insist that the company manager of the already up and running adult show should de-rig some of the scenery to accommodate my Whirligig show, as previously discussed in detail and agreed by both producers. On the stage there was deadlock – and we were opening eight hours later!
(At another major touring theatre, the company manager of the evening show refused my children’s company access to any of the dressing rooms! Believe it or not, they had to get ready behind screens at the back of the orchestra pit. But that’s another story …).
Sharing on a one-off basis for, say, a Christmas season, has sometimes worked fine. My production of THE GINGERBREAD MAN once happily shared the stage of Chichester Festival Theatre with DAISY PULLS IT OFF. Way back in 1969 Robin Midgley (who sadly died recently) put my play THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT WENT TO SEE... on top of THE LITTLE HUT at the Phoenix, Leicester. Both shows happily used a stage covered in sand! Another sharing with OWL AND PUSSYCAT wasn’t so successful. At the old Derby Playhouse it played on top of GALILEO. The central feature of GALILEO’s set was a large, immoveable, iron, spiral staircase – hardly an ideal component of Edward Lear’s Bong Tree Island! Ironically, OWL AND PUSSYCAT played to 100%, whereas GALILEO played to about 35%. I couldn’t help thinking it would have been more logical to put GALILEO on top of OWL AND PUSSYCAT ….
But let’s get back to weekly touring. The obvious solution is to carefully plan and design two productions – one adult, one children’s – to fit over one another, and to offer a package to the theatres. Michael Bogdanov and the Phoenix Theatre, Leicester pioneered this in the early 70’s, when BILLY BODGER’S MAGIC CIRCUS toured with a Beatles’ compilation show called LUCY IN THE SKY WITH DIAMONDS. Technically the project worked, but sadly neither production attracted large enough audiences to set a precedent. No star names. No big children’s title. Whirligig, my own company, once contacted a couple of dozen touring dates offering a similar package, but with a couple of names in the adult show. Some theatres only wanted the children’s show, because it fitted in with their programming and they already had enough starry straight plays. Other theatres wanted the adult show, but not the children’s show, because they already had one booked for the week before. Setting up a tour proved impossible. Discouraged, we then realised that in all honesty, our expertise lay in putting on children’s shows. And we didn’t really want to do adult shows anyway! One experiment, however, did succeed. Cameron Mackintosh in the 70’s, ensured that the set of his touring MY FAIR LADY could accommodate THE GINGERBREAD MAN, which played one week during MY FAIR LADY’s month or two-month run at the major regional houses, in between touring solo to other venues.
But the package idea has never taken off. Until now! Kenny Wax and Nick Brooke are touring THE GRUFFALO’S CHILD, the delightful follow-up to THE GRUFFALO, on top of Alan Ayckbourn’s BEDROOM FARCE, featuring many popular names. Tall Stories has provided THE GRUFFALO’S CHILD, which has its own designer and production team. But Messrs. Wax and Brooke made sure that the team employed on BEDROOM FARCE didn’t assume seniority! There are no arguments on the road. The two productions co-exist amicably. Both shows are equally important. And both, I hear, are doing very satisfactory business at the box office. Will this be the beginning of a new trend? Will theatre managers be tempted by the possible returns from a sixteen show week, despite the inevitable overtime payments to their crew? Will more children’s plays now get the opportunity to play the major theatres? I hope so.
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