The actor Mike Elles once wrote in a theatre programme biography words to the effect that – ‘Mike Elles has worked many times for David Wood, his roles including a Slug, a Squirrel, a Saltpot, a Walnut, a cuckoo-clock Cuckoo, a Hermit Crab and a piece of silver paper. His ambition is to one day play a human being.’ Mike’s tongue was, I’m pretty sure, firmly in his cheek, because I know he relishes the challenge of convincingly playing animals, insects and inanimate objects. He is one of a growing number of actors who have successfully specialised in theatre for children, a world in which non-human characters abound. These actors do not find it demeaning to be asked to play a hippo or a mouse. They find it as interesting and demanding, if not more so, than playing human beings.
It’s understandable that animals feature large in children’s plays. It reflects the important part that animals play in children’s lives – in their picture books, in their soft toys, in their pets. Indeed it might be true to say that many young children actually prefer animals to human beings. So it’s no surprise that in all four of my adaptations currently on the road, animals feature. The Tiger in THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA, and the Sheep, Pigs, Dog and Bull in SHAUN’S BIG SHOW (SHAUN THE SHEEP) are the stars of their shows but even in GEORGE’S MARVELLOUS MEDICINE there are numerous Chickens, more Pigs and another Bull, all of whom grow or shrink when administered versions of George’s potion. And the puppet, Sammy the Dog, in GOODNIGHT MISTER TOM, is a major character in this heartwarming wartime tale of an evacuee.
Children, and most adults, also enjoy experiments with scale, in which small worlds are magnified, resulting in giant kitchen props or huge flowerpots, worlds in which human-sized actors can play insects or inanimate objects that come to life.
Maybe we are all still children at heart, and adults as well as young people enjoy such fantasy and imaginative leaps. Certainly, the world of panto has always employed animals – Mother Goose, Dick Whittington’s Cat, Puss in Boots, Dame Trot’s Cow, the pantomime horse – and in recent years musical theatre has jumped on the bandwagon. CATS started it all. Now we have THE LION KING, WARHORSE, THE WIZARD OF OZ (featuring Toto the Dog), the forthcoming SHREK (with fairytale animals) and BETTY BLUE EYES, in which the animatronic pig takes a starring role.
But this should come as no surprise. Ever since storytellers started plying their trade – Aesop and his fables through Aristophanes and his frogs, to Hans Andersen’s UGLY DUCKLING and Orwell’s ANIMAL FARM – animals have been employed to teach us mere mortals how we tick and how to behave. Long may they stalk our stages!
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