Bringing the fantasy garden to life on stage

Picture shows: Caitlin Thorburn (Hatty) and David Tute (Tom). Pic:  Jane Hobson.
Picture shows: Caitlin Thorburn (Hatty) and David Tute (Tom). Pic: Jane Hobson.

The Birmingham Stage Company, leading producer of theatre for family audiences, brings another magical show to Sheffield next week in Tom’s Midnight Garden which has been adapted for the stage by David Wood, the prolific and award-winning children’s dramatist.

“This is a new production of a play that I first adapted 12 or 13 years ago,” explains the writer who is responsible for translating no fewer than eight Roald Dahl stories for the stage along with a host of other classic books from Babe, the Sheep-Pig to The Tiger Who Came To Tea.

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, about a boy who is transported to a secret garden from the past, was first published in 1958 and has also had film, TV and radio versions. “When Unicorn first suggested it I was sure that the fact it hadn’t been adapted for the stage was because she wasn’t interested in the theatre,” recalls Wood.

“When I was dispatched to her cottage in Cambridgeshire to persuade her I discovered that she loved the theatre and she was to become a dear friend until she died about three years ago. The main reason she had not sold the rights was because she thought it would be too difficult to do properly because of the two different time frames. Either you did it naturalistically and got separate sets from the fifties and the 1900s and switched back and forwards, which would have been cumbersome and boring,or just as bad you started in the fifties and went back to the 1900s, making it seem like a fantasy or ghost story.

“I came up with the idea of a non-naturalistic approach, setting it in a non-specific location which have nothing to do with any period but the costumes did. You are encouraged to use your imagination which is what theatres are there for.”

Wood, a former actor who played one of the rebel schoolboys in Lindsay Anderson’s If in the sixties, says that children’s theatre has changed.

“Forty years ago when I started most regional theatres were not interested in children except at panto time and although the same thing exists to a certain extent, now you will find three or four children’s productions going around and what I find amazing and delightful is that younger children are being included. I did an adaptiaon of The Tiger Who Came to Tea and two years ago it won an Olivier award, the first time a show for under fives had done so, and it shows the powers that be recognise its importance.”

Making a stage show out of a picture book of a few pages compared with a novel is surely a challenge. “My daughters loved The Tiger Who Came to Tea as children so it was a labour of love for me and I’m pleased it’s coming back to the West End in July.

“There was the question of slightly expanding the book. Making it a whole day rather than just the evening and adding some songs. I don’t think that’s padding. You don’t put any things in that don’t affect the story or children will recognise that and get bored. The things children love - animals, food, colour, magic and fantasy - they all exist in the story.

“Tom’s Midnight Garden has this fantasy element,” he continues. “You follow this boy who is quarantined and has to stay in this big house with his aunt who goes back in time and doesn’t understand why and meets a girl in the same house and it’s totally believable.

“What I was worried about in a way was that I would not be able to retain the sense of credibility she managed in the book but it seems to work. You get a full house of eight, nine and 10 year olds who were all born after 2000 watching a story set in the past century. Nothing happens in the 2000s that they can relate to and yet they seem to be riveted. There are no phones, the characters have to write letters. There’s something about the story and the magic that that renders them incredibly quiet and that’s hugely complimentary. It’s easy to get them to laugh and participate and shout out but to get them to listen is as real challenge.

“With a book it’s creating a page-turner and we have to produce the theatrical equivalent to turning the page and when you get it right it’s really rewarding.”

Tom’s Midnight Garden is at the Lyceum Theatre from Tuesday to Saturday.