David Wood has been working in theatre for nearly 50 years. He’s worked as a magician (he’s a member of Magic Circle), an actor, a composer and writer – and has been involved in over 80 shows. During this time he has adapted so many of Roald Dahl’s books – eight in total – that he believes he has ‘got into his mind quite a bit.’
This Christmas, three of Wood’s Dahl adaptations will play across Britain and his stage versions of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Goodnight Mr Tom will both be running at the West End. Wood is such a don of the children’s theatre world that he has even written a show for the Queen. It was during this occasion – a children’s literature-themed garden party held at Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen’s 80th – that Wood first met the author of Tiger, Judith Kerr. Wood’s two daughters had always adored Tiger and Wood ‘practically got down on one knee’ and introduced himself to Kerr. The two had a (slightly less fancy) tea at Kerr’s home a few weeks later and the pair were soon working on an adaptation of Kerr’s lovingly-pawed book.
For the most part, Kerr stayed out of the adaptation process. But there was just one sticking point: should the tiger talk, as is the case in Kerr’s original picture book? Kerr was insistent that this feature should stay intact but Wood was not so sure. The stage show was only going to work if the Tiger looked as close to Kerr’s original, lanky and vibrant creation as possible – and that wasn’t going to happen with just a few stripy face paints. A suit would be needed, which would make talking very tricky indeed. Furthermore, Wood wanted to use the Tiger’s silence to ensnare the children, a move which ultimately proved to be a vital component of the show: ‘I wanted the tiger to mime and the audience to interpret. In other words, I wanted to empower the children into knowing what the tiger is thinking and feeling before everyone else. So an audience participation element came about, which is a crucial part of the show. The children feel a part of it.’
Many people – including esteemed children’s writer Michael Rosen – have attempted to forge a connection between Kerr’s tiger and the time she spent in a Berlin on the verge of WWII, as a child. Kerr, says Wood, is having none of it: ‘A lot of people have tried to make this connection; the idea that the tiger is the Gestapo knocking on the door. Judith just roars with laughter.’ In fact, Tiger was born largely from frustration and – dare we say it – a little bit of boredom, as Kerr stayed at home to bring up her young daughter Tacy. A trip to the zoo – plus Kerr’s desire to have someone unusual knock at the door and shake things up a little – inspired the story, which Tacy would request again and again with the curt command: ‘Talk the tiger!’ By the time it came to writing the book, Kerr knew the whole story off by heart.
There are, of course, much darker overtones to the second of Wood’s decidedly unchristmassy Christmas shows: Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr Tom. I had rather fuzzy, warm memories of Goodnight Mr Tom but it is, in fact, an exceptionally brutal story. The barebones are this: it’s WWII and young Willie (abused by his mum) is evacuated to the countryside to live with the reclusive but kindly Tom. The two lonely lads bond with each other but Willie is eventually sent back home to his mother, who locks him in a cupboard with his baby sister, who eventually dies. Yep – the baby dies. It isn’t exactly cheery stuff but it’s uncompromising and powerful writing. According to Wood, these profoundly dark moments in Tom are some of the ‘best scenes written in children’s literature’. Wood’s stage version – which picked up an Olivier for ‘Best Entertainment and Family show’ in 2013 – doesn’t soften the punches. It is these painful moments that Wood believes really draw the children in: ‘The opening scene with the mother is very tough. When the mother hits Tom there’s an incredulous gasp through the auditorium. They are shocked – and I love it when children are shocked. You’ve got them then – you’ve really got them.’
Wood knows a thing or two about shocking children in theatre – particularly when it comes to Dahl, whose work Wood has returned to again and again. Dahl, argues Wood, occupies an area in children’s literature that is all his own. Enter Roald Dahl’s world and all your flights of fantasy will hover right beside you and whisper eerily in your ear: ‘When you go into Dahl you’re normally in a fantasy within reality. You’re nearly always in the real world (take the Witches: real world, real hotel) but extraordinary things are going on within it. He borrows from fairy tales – he uses witches and giants – but he doesn’t use them in a fairy tale way. It’s a very clever marriage of fantasy and reality.’
I ask Wood if he is worried that a child’s capacity for fantasy – or make-believe – is being limited by constant access to technology. Wood isn’t so sure: ‘I’ve seen 2 year olds do things with iPads that Ican’t do – and the speed and dexterity with which they do them is quite extraordinary. I think there’s no reason that kind of play shouldn’t develop their imaginations.’ What does concern Wood, however, is the fact that ‘bed-time story seems to have gone out the window. Children go into infant schools with no knowledge of nursery rhyme at all.’
Wood spends a lot of time in schools himself, mostly leading story-telling events for young students. What’s really disturbing, though, is that Wood has not always been greeted with open arms by all the teachers concerned: ‘Often when I go into the staffroom at schools I know that I’m not terribly welcome. The arts teacher is pleased to see me but I can feel other staff members actively thinking: ‘What a waste of time this is. We’ve got tests! We’ve got tests’. It’s very sad.’ It isn’t just in schools that Wood senses a certain hostility: he often encounters it within his own bleedin’ industry. Wood has lost count of the number of times that people have asked him: ‘Are you thinking of writing a real play?’ Jacqueline Wilson, too, is often asked when she will write a ‘real book’. The snobbery is off the scale and it’s Philip Pullman who has come up with the best response. Whenever Pullman is asked if he is going to write a ‘real’ book, the writer replies: ‘Would you ask a paediatrician if they thought they might be good enough to eventually work on grownups?’
Critics, too, have their own in-built prejudices which Wood has knocked up against throughout his career. Wood recalls one particular radio show with Michael Billington ‘years and years ago.’ During the show, Wood put it to Billington that there had been four shows at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in the last year and the only one Billington had not reviewed was the children’s show: Why? Billington replied: ‘I didn’t think it was important.’ Wood pushed Billington: ‘Why not?’ Billington’s response: ‘I don’t know what I’d be looking for. I don’t know how I would be able to criticize it.’ There are deep frustrations, then, to a life spent in children’s theatre, but it isn’t all doom and gloom. Sometimes there’ll be a moment when it all clicks into place beautifully – a moment when just a little trick of the light, or a theatrical play of the hands, can cast a spell unique to theatre:
‘These children are all so used to computers but if you do something which suddenly needs a shadow puppet, which is really just a bit of cardboard on a stick, the children will gasp. I find that very reassuring. They have not lost a sense of wonder. They have not lost a sense of magic.’
David Wood’s adaptations of Goodnight Mister Tom and The Tiger Who Came to Tea both play the West End this winter.