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)

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Creating The Giant Jam Sandwich by John Vernon Lord

I am often asked by children, parents and teachers what made me think up the ideas for my books. Many of the ideas for my picture books seem to have come out of small experiences in my life that I have wanted to reflect upon and then the wish to turn part of these memory glimpses into fantasy stories for children. My father has a loose connection with some of the stories I’ve done: with his advice as to how to get rid of wasps at picnics (for The Giant Jam Sandwich); the fact that I was too scared to tell him that I had lost one of my new roller-skates when I was a boy at school (for Mr Ellwood’s chase in The Runaway Roller-skate); and his annoyance at his next door neighbour for chucking snails over the garden wall (for the exploits of Mr Mead and his Garden).

I am describing here the background and evolution of events that led to the publication of The Giant Jam Sandwich, as this will probably be the most familiar of my children’s books. The story tells how a village called Itching Down is invaded by wasps one hot summer and of the residents’ efforts to rid themselves of their unwelcome guests by baking a huge loaf and spreading a slice of it with jam. As the wasps begin to gorge themselves on the strawberry jam, a second slice of bread is dropped on top of them from a great height (with the aid of helicopters and a flying tractor) and squashes flat most of the wasps, trapping them inside the sandwich. While all the villagers rejoice in a celebration, the wasp-filled sandwich is finally taken out to sea by hundreds of crows for the rest of the birds to feast upon.

The idea for this story was prompted by an event, which took place during an August holiday in Devon. My family was staying at a fairly remote farmhouse in Milton Damerel with a couple of friends who had two young boys, Alexander and Jonathan, aged five and three years. These young lads were terrified by wasps and, whenever there was a buzzing sound about the dining table or picnic cloth, they would squeal with alarm until the offending insects were removed from the scene.

One afternoon, during a walk across the fields, Alexander started to scream and shout because a wasp insisted on hovering continually about him. In order to quell his anxiety and divert his attention I settled the two boys and our three girls on the grass and, on the spur of the moment, proceeded to invent the bare bones of the story of what came to be The Giant Jam Sandwich.

wasp-and-jamThe germ of the idea must have sprung from my own childhood memory of my father’s habit of placing a slice of jam-covered crust some distance away from where we were picnicking in order to encourage aggravating wasps away from our food. My father was a baker, who had a bakery and cafe in Glossop in Derbyshire and you can see his old shop at the end of the book when the villagers are dancing. In the book my father can be seen in his familiar white coat, puffing upon his pipe and standing at the door of ‘Bert’s Cafe’.  I spent many hours working in his bake house on Saturdays and during the vacation period when I was an art student and I can remember hurling lumps of discarded dough at any wasp that dared to venture in and hover about the white tiled walls.

Over the years I have often received letters from children. On the first page of the book we can see the wasps swarming towards the village; ‘four million’ of them it states in the text. I once had a letter from a classroom of school children asking me why I had not drawn all the four million wasps as stated in the text. I wrote back saying that it took me on average about 45 seconds to draw a single wasp and I suggested that they should work out how long it would have taken me to draw all four million wasps. The answer is 180 million seconds, or 3 million minutes, or 50 thousand hours, or 2,083 days, making it nearly five years and nine months (if you were working on it 24 hours a day!).

John Vernon Lord originally presented this article as a case study at Bookquest in 1984; it was re-produced in ‘An author’s view: John Vernon Lord talking about picture books’ published in Reflections on Early Reading by Collins in 1990 and updated for a paper presented in Barcelona in 1999.

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The Giant Jam Sandwich opens as a half term treat in association with Derby LIVE at Derby’s Guildhall Theatre on Saturday 11 February with performances daily at 11am and 2.30pm through to Saturday 18 February – you can book tickets here.

The production moves to Polka Theatre, Wimbledon, followed by tour dates around the country through to Saturday 25 March – you can see a full list of performance dates with booking links by clicking here.

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John Vernon Lord is an author, illustrator and teacher. His children’s books have been published widely and translated into several languages. His picture book The Giant Jam Sandwich has become a classic, having been in print for over forty-four years. His career in education includes being head of various departments and schools during his many years teaching at Brighton. He was Professor of Illustration at the University of Brighton 1986-99, where he is now Professor Emeritus. He was the chair of the Graphic Design Board of the Council for National Academic Awards 1981-84. He is allergic to wasps!

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