Marital problems, Brexit and insect extermination – rich content for children’s theatre

As New Perspective’s production of the world famous picture book, The Giant Jam Sandwich makes its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival next week, the company’s Artistic Director, Jack McNamara – who adapted the book for stage – says that the key to successful children’s theatre is making the content as rich and complex as that for adult audiences. 

The world of children’s picture books is a place where imaginations go into overdrive, not only for readers but for those of us constantly looking for new sources to turn into theatre.

Like the best of children’s writing, we make sure our theatre for children doesn’t shy away from looking at issues in depth, even if that involves handling some potentially tricky themes.

Even a book as joyous and exuberant as The Giant Jam Sandwich, which presents a conflict between a community of villagers and a swarm of wasps, there are complex themes that we found worth mining. There is the matter of foreign invasion which, in the world today, feels impossible to ignore.

Without getting heavy handed, the story gave us an opportunity to explore negative attitudes towards outsiders. While the wasps in the book are generally villainous, in our production we tried to show things from their point of view and even have a moment where a character has a moral crisis about trapping them. We also introduce a story-line about the protagonist’s broken down marriage which haunts him throughout the story.

Of course we are sensitive to the fact that some children will be too young to understand divorce or may even be a little too close to that subject. But we present the story positively, effectively showing that marriage isn’t the only thing that can make adults happy! We’re not here to preach traditional values; we would rather reassure kids that people and their different lives are worth celebrating. On tour earlier this year, children responded in a completely mature way to that.

By taking this approach, I believe we do justice to the style of John Vernon Lord’s and Janet Burroway’s original book, which is beautifully messy and human, rather than sanitised. Vernon Lord himself is a big fan of this first production of his book, claiming: “I enjoyed it from beginning to end… a very clever way of extending the story.” He was also entirely sympathetic to the resonances with what is happening in the UK today. The private notebook of illustrations that he showed me were full of dazzling and scathing sketches of some of the ridiculous politicians we are all putting up with at the moment.

At their best, children’s books tell brilliantly concise stories in strange and provocative ways. Whether that is the tongue-twisting brilliance of Dr Seuss, the dry minimalism of Jon Klassen, or the outrageous humour of Babette Cole. These artists, among many others in this area, push their form as far as they can and bring readers, old and young, with them.

But work for children has often been connected to an avant-garde sensibility. The composer Carl Stalling’s music for the early Warner Brothers cartoons is considered some of the most progressive modern composition of its time; full of stop-start rhythms and bouncing between genres.

Inspired by all these great innovators, we believe that work for children should be as daring and brilliant as anything made for adults. That also means investing as much into our design, casting and dramaturgy as we would for our ‘grown-up’ work. With creativity being stamped out of the curriculum, it feels like a particularly crucial time to take children and their imaginations as seriously as we can.

The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord & Janet Burroway, and adapted for the stage by Jack McNamara, runs at Pleasance Above at the Pleasance Courtyard, from 2 – 28 August (not including 14 August) at 10.20am daily. Book tickets here or phone Box Office: 0131 556 6550

To book review tickets for this show please contact the Pleasance Press Office: 0131 556 6558 | press@pleasance.co.uk

photo: L-R Jack McNamara (Artistic Director, New Perspectives), John Vernon Lord (illustrator and author)