The teenage exploits of Georgia Nicolson and the Ace Gang have become a global phenomenon since their introduction in Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging, earning author Louise Rennison the title of ‘Queen of Teen’ and a number one spot on the New York Times bestsellers list. Ten fabbity books and a hit film later, and Georgia is being unleashed again – this time, in Rennison’s hometown of Leeds, on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Adapted by Rennison and Leeds writer Mark Catley, Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging is described by the author as the “highlights” of all ten novels, chronicling Georgia’s attempts to win the affections of Sex God Robbie whilst negotiating the problems of friendship, infuriating parents, shaving off your own eyebrows, and, of course, boys.
Launching Georgia on the Northern stage is a project Rennison calls her “dream”, especially after the disappointment of having little involvement in the 2008 film adaption of the novels. “When the film was made, I was very upset, because I was so left out of the process. To their credit, they did want to include me, but they were running such a big business, I didn’t have a voice in it.” Throughout this period, Rennison hung on to the thought that if she ever got the chance she would create her own version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, although admits that she believed “there was no chance of it coming true”. Clearly, sometimes you get exactly what you wish for.
Despite this, Rennison had to adjust to the transition from writing novels to writing for the stage: “I know I have to listen to other people, which is quite tricky sometimes, but I’m learning.” The main difficulty arises from the fact that the books are driven by “girls rambling on about snogging” rather than a discernable plot line. Rennison recognises that, unlike with books, “you can’t snuggle up to a theatre experience, you can’t read a bit and put it down – there has to be a something that happens.” Luckily, Leeds-based writer Mark Catley is on hand to move the process along. “Mark has written for Eastenders, and I think if you can write for that you can write for anything. He kind of browbeat me, because I was just going ‘oh I don’t know, it’s just about feelings’, so he had to read all ten books, poor sod. He started talking like Georgia, the language and everything.”
It seems that the male species doesn’t always understand the world of teenage girls. Rennison remembers friend Alan Davies (who plays Georgia’s father in the film version) “writing a little something to put on the outside of the book, and it said ‘I wish I’d read this when I was a teenager because I wouldn’t have tried to get on with girls because they’re mad’.” A “mad” incident that has often prompted male confusion is when Georgia visits the house of a “snogging professional” to learn how to kiss, an occurrence that comes directly from Rennison’s own teenage experience. “Funnily enough,” the writer says, “maybe it’s just a Seacroft thing [the area of Leeds where Rennison grew up], because this man saw me on Look North and said there was a boy at his school that charged 10p for you to hit him in the stomach, just to practise.” It’s not just queuing up for snogging lessons that hails from Rennison’s past, but many of the other embarrassing incidents, including the memorable occasion when Georgia attends a party dressed as a stuffed olive. The author believes that attending an all-girls school can account for these hilarious anecdotes, as she was less self-conscious without the knowledge that girls “weren’t supposed to be funny” around boys. “The whole stuffed olive thing – I spent all day with my mates making this big cage. There was nobody to say, ‘well, that’s a really shit idea actually. You’re going to regret that’,” she adds, laughing. “But you wouldn’t believe it, when window cleaners turned up, or any boys no matter what age, we would just follow them around going, ‘Look, they’re doing boy things!’”
When Rennison wasn’t marvelling at sex gods or dressing up in questionable outfits, theatre played a significant role in her life. Rennison recollects her family’s involvement in the entertainment business – her great-grandmother arrived in the UK during the potato famine and set up an Irish Centre that housed touring bands. “All the Irish bands used to come through, and they’d come and stay with us, so the house would be full of entertainers. So I’ve always been interested in that.” The theatrical spirit obviously rubbed off on Rennison, who spent her childhood creating makeshift plays in her garage, and later touring with her two-handed version of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. “I’d be Anita Ekberg, and my poor friend Jane had to be everything – the village people, the circus, the bridge,” she remembers. “It was fun because we used to travel around in the luggage compartments of trains, with these mountains made out of foam.” After years of being involved in low budget shows, staging a play in a theatre as fancy as the West Yorkshire Playhouse feels like a bit of a step up: “I’ve never actually worked in a theatre where you’ve got a lighting designer and a costume designer, it’s fantastic. It’s very different, very exciting.”
Even though Rennison’s creations are now produced on grander stages, she enforces their accessibility: “People think theatre is a posh thing, but it’s not. All that Shakespeare and stuff, it was really the dregs of society that went to those theatres, and peed on the back of people’s legs and all of that.” Whilst Angus… will hopefully not include urinating on audience members, Rennison insists: “we haven’t compromised to patronise – it’s really funny. When I read my books, my mum says to me, ‘Are you still laughing at your own books?’, but when you see other people bring something to life that you’ve written, it’s just amazing.”
Apart from laughter, what does Rennison hope Georgia’s story will give to her young audiences? “I think that although she’s a twat and can really get on your nerves, it’s always been important to me to be kind, to communicate and to be aware of what you’re doing. And also to express the deep love you have for your mates.” She names one of the most “touching” compliments she ever received arriving in the form of a letter from Ireland. “The mother wrote to me and said, ‘I can hear my daughter laughing at your book. This is the first book she’s ever read. She’s fifteen, and she was humiliated at school about her reading ability.’” This idea of a young girl being “in her own world, where she’s free” is clearly very rewarding for Rennison.
Fans of Georgia’s adventures are also contacting the author from further afield, with American girls even writing to request “more British words” ever since the books were endowed with glossaries for those not well-acquainted with such Georgia-isms as “nunga-nungas” and “fandago”. “They even think snogging’s British!” Rennison exclaims. Yet Rennison believes that British fans are the most revealing in the way they communicate. “The Americans are so serious. They did this mental examination of my books, which alarmingly said Georgia was a good role model. I don’t know where they got that from! But they also said it was interesting how English people are so confident in their language; they twist it and turn it and make jokes within jokes and use a lot of words. I think that’s true.” The letters Rennison receives from her British fans are often written in a distinctly Georgia-esque colloquial manner. “They will go: ‘Dear Lou. Hi. Erm’ – and they’ll write ‘erm’ – ‘Hang on, my pen’s run out’ – which it indeed has as it will just trail off – ‘Hi, er, god, so bored, had to go to school today, AGAIN’, in capitals. They’re very emphatic.”
Understanding the power of language is something that’s very important to Rennison. She comments on how slang was inherent to her own friendship group. “We definitely had a code, something that was secret to us. Sadly, I still do it. I’ve always liked that, you know: ‘as thick as a thick thing on thick tablets in thick land’. It [the slang used in her novels] comes from years and years of doing that kind of thing. Each group of teenagers is unique.” Without a doubt, accessing the inner workings of a 14-year-old’s mind comes easily to Rennison. “People say, ‘Is it because you’re childish?’ There is an element of that, but it’s also because I’ve got a good memory – when it’s your life you can tap into that emotional memory.”
Despite her obvious love of language and books (“Even if I haven’t got time to read, I can’t go to bed without a book under my pillow, it makes me frightened. You can just get in it, can’t you?”), Rennison names theatre as her “favourite thing”. She fondly recalls seeing Kevin Spacey perform in “the humpy one” (that’s Richard III to you and me) at the Old Vic, where some men gave up their seats for an elderly lady. “She said it was the first time she’d been to the theatre in five years, since her husband died, because they used to come together but she didn’t have the heart for it anymore. But she thought it was such a spectacular show that she’d come, and at the end she said, ‘I can’t tell you how transforming that was.’ You wouldn’t get that in somewhere like the cinema – that opportunity for really proper human contact.” As Rennison states, “that’s what you get from theatre”, and what she hopes will be brought to the audiences of Leeds via Georgia and her friends.
After years of delighting young readers with her tales of hilariosity, it seems only natural that Rennison brings Georgia back to her hometown of Leeds to be recreated on stage. There might even be more in store for the Ace Gang after Angus, Thongs and Even More Snogging, with Rennison mentioning the possibility of spin offs as well as a potential stage version of her latest “very Northern, more gothic” book series Withering Tights, premiering, as you might expect, in Leeds. “I’d love to come back to theatre. I’d like to make it a tradition that I come back here to the West Yorkshire Playhouse.” Whatever happens, this isn’t the last we’ll be hearing of Georgia’s notorious Viking Bison Disco Inferno Dance, her troublesome boy entrancers and those really big knickers.
You can see Angus, Thongs, and Even More Snogging at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from 11 February to 03 March 2012. Get tickets online or by calling the box office on 0113 213 7700.
Image 1: by Keith Pattison: Full cast with director Ryan McBryde (centre in blue jumper)
Image 2: Louise Rennison
Image 3: by Keith Pattison: L-R Rachel Caffrey (Jas), Emily Houghton (Rosie), Yemisi Oyinloye (Ellen) and Naomi Petersen (Georgia)