What's a Gruffalo?
The terrifying star of Julia Donaldson's multimillion-selling children's picture books - with "terrible tusks and terrible claws, and terrible teeth in his terrible jaws" - returns to Dubai next weekend in the stage adaptation of The Gruffalo.
Why is he so popular?
At first, Donaldson's and the illustrator Axel Scheffler's 1999 creation - part grizzly bear, part buffalo - wasn't popular at all. But as word of mouth grew, a whole cottage industry began forming around the story of a mouse who wards off predators in the deep dark woods by saying he's friends with a fictional Gruffalo... only to come across a real one who wants to eat him. There's been a star-studded Oscar-nominated short film, a sequel, The Gruffalo's Child, and even a Gruffalo woodland trail in an English national park. And, of course, the stage show.
The co-director of Tall Stories Theatre Company, Toby Mitchell, has been involved with an adaptation that has played to audiences around the world since 2001. "Children love it because it's all about a small creature defeating a big creature," he says. "And adults love it because of the clever twist in it, the fact that the mouse doesn't really believe in The Gruffalo and then, all of a sudden, there it is." It's also wonderful to read: Donaldson's structure and the rhymes are excellent.
From book to stage
Anyone who has read The Gruffalo will know it takes minutes to read aloud before your rapt young charge demands to hear it all again. And again. It's not exactly the basis of satisfying theatre, so Tall Stories has to approach the tale from a slightly different angle. "You have to flesh out the characters, essentially," admits Mitchell. "Which means giving them all a good song each and making it into a good, fun 50-minute show. But the crucial thing is making sure it doesn't feel padded while retaining the simplicity of the show. That's why the audience interaction is so crucial, because otherwise you might as well watch the DVD.
"The challenge we initially set ourselves was to keep all the rhyming couplets," he says. "What we didn't know in 2001 is that it wouldn't be long before kids would know the story off by heart. It's wonderful: you say part of a line, pause for a second, and they finish it off for you."
The supporting cast
The Gruffalo makes anyone reading it feel as if they are an expert storyteller. It's almost impossible not to create weird and wacky voices and accents for the characters, and Tall Stories was no different. "Fox ended up as a weird Cockney taxi driver-type character, showing Mouse around the woods, singing a Madness-style ska song," Mitchell says. "Owl is a retired air force captain with a military-theme tune. Snake is derived from rattlesnake, so we decided to give him maracas. It didn't take long for him to become Latin American from that, a bit like Ricky Martin."
Playing in Dubai
Tall Stories has brought The Gruffalo and The Gruffalo's Child to the UAE before. "We bring exactly the same show as we do in the UK," Mitchell says. "Kids around the world seem to just get it, even if they don't know the book."
The National is giving Arts & Life readers the chance to win a family package of four tickets to the 10.30am performance of The Gruffalo on Friday, October 12 at Madinat Theatre, Dubai. To enter the draw, email firstname.lastname@example.org with your name and contact number, along with the subject "Gruffalo", by midnight tonight