Tall Stories

Translated from picture book to television all the way to the big stage, The Gruffalo has captured the imagination of the young and old alike.

The Gruffalo is one of the most popular children’s stories of modern times and the stage production of the same name has become a Christmas tradition.

In 2001 the witty tale was brought to life by Tall Stories, a north-London based theatre company. Since then it has travelled everywhere from Australia to Alaska.

In case you’ve been living under a rock and are wondering, “A gruffalo? What’s a gruffalo?” Julia Donaldson’s rhyming fable tells of a tiny mouse who wanders through a deep, dark wood in search of nuts. En route the mouse encounters three hungry animals. The quick-thinking rodent frightens off its predators by telling them of the terrifying beast that it’s going to meet – the gruffalo.

To the mouse’s amazement it eventually crosses paths with the imaginary beast, who fancies the mouse on a piece of bread. But what he lacks in size, the mouse makes up for in brains, which he uses to outwit the gruffalo.

Together with illustrator Axel Scheffler, the children’s laureate has won numerous awards for The Gruffalo. But how did the story end up on stage?

Director Olivia Jacobs founded Tall Stories in 1997 with Toby Mitchell, a previous editor for Macmillan books.

She explains, “We were really lucky because Toby had read The Gruffalo at Macmillan. He loved it and suggested we have a go at adapting it into a play.”

Now both joint-artistic directors at the company which is based at Jackson’s Lane arts centre in Highgate, the pair share a passion for great story-telling. Together they approached Julia about their idea.

Olivia recalls, “At the time nobody really knew The Gruffalo and it hadn’t won any awards. We met with her and discussed how it might work and what we wanted to do. She was happy with it, wished us luck and so we negotiated the rights with her.”

In 1999 the book scooped the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and within a year became the UK’s best-selling picture book.

“It was really exciting but also terrifying,” says Olivia.

“When you are working on a production of a book that people love you don’t want to mess it up.”

Well, there was no chance of that. Families flocked to see it and, most importantly, Donaldson approved.

Speaking after seeing the show, Julia said, “I’m delighted with the way Tall Stories has been faithful to the words and structure of the book, interpreting it with versatility, energy and quirkiness. It’s an exhilarating leap from page to stage!”

So what is it about this show that has made it such a huge international hit?

Olivia explains, “I think the Gruffalo owes its success to the strength and simplicity of the story and to Axel’s wonderful pictures which bring the story to life. It’s David and Goliath, small mouse beats massive gruffalo – which is very appealing when you’re a small person sitting next to a grown up.”

She adds, “While we have stayed faithful to the story, we have added a little something too: in the bringing to life of the characters, especially of the predators, in the terribly catchy tunes and how the story is told.”

With a cast of animal characters, you might expect to see costumes made of fur and feathers. But that would be too obvious, according to Olivia.

“If we had put all the characters in giant animal costumes it would have been just like reading the book. We wanted to do it in a way that would ensure the stage production was also imaginative, colourful and humorous too.”

Tall Stories worked with a team of composers at Shock Productions to develop each character and devise an original score.

“The characters were developed from each animal. We thought about a fox and how it would pad around the garden. On a human – this looked a bit like a boxer’s moves, dodging and dipping, and suddenly we found we had a cockney wheeler dealer on our hands! His music had to be ska.

“With the snake, we also looked at how it would move. The undulating movement transferred onto a human body kind of translated into a rather self loving Latin lothario!”

Since its first performance in Chester in 2001, The Gruffalo has visited Ireland, Poland, Germany, Chile, Hong Kong, Dubai, Singapore, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and America, including runs on Broadway and London’s West End and in the Sydney Opera House.

Julia has been so delighted with the adaptation that she has since granted Tall Stories the rights to The Gruffalo’s Child, The Snail and The Whale and Room on the Broom – showing at London’s Lyric Theatre this Christmas.

Olivia says, “Before every show we usually meet with Julia and discuss our approach to it, none more so than with The Snail and The Whale. We loved the story, but weren’t entirely sure how to do it.”

“Then Toby read this article about soldiers who record stories for their children when they are stationed abroad. Apparently The Gruffalo and The Snail and The Whale are two of the favourites. So we thought it over and decided to tell the story told through the eyes of a little girl who wants to travel the world with her father in the Navy.

”Julia was nervous but she saw it in Edinburgh and said that it was her favourite so far – we were very relieved!”

The run-up to Christmas is incredibly hectic for Tall Stories. The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom will both be on in London, while The Snail and The Whale is in Exeter and The Gruffalo’s Child in Birmingham.

Olivia says, “It’s really rare that we have a month with nothing happening. If there’s nothing going on in the UK, there will be elsewhere in the world.”

The job involves a lot of travel, which has become more difficult since Olivia became a mother-of-two. In order to ensure the quality of the productions worldwide, Tall Stories has retained the rights to their shows and Olivia and Toby usually travel out to set up new productions.

“Our next show is called My Brother The Robot, which we are creating ourselves. It is the third in a series of fact-based shows. Twinkle Twonkle was about the Big Bang Theory, Giraffe was about The Theory of Evolution and this is about artificial intelligence and the future.”

There are also plans for a play aimed at teenagers and adults.

Olivia says, “We were never created as a company to produce family work. We were created to tell great stories well.”

“Children’s theatre used to be seen as the poor relation of grown up but I don’t think that’s the case any more. Look at shows like Matilda, Swallows and Amazons and The Gruffalo. They are great shows and great in their own right.”

“More than anything, I hope that the audience go home from our shows and read the book or make their own story because all you need is imagination to make an incredible story.”

✽ For more information about Tall Stories and their various productions, visit www.tallstories.org.uk