When you hear that the show is called The Gruffalo or think of the term ‘family theatre’ you immediately think that the show is aimed at small children. But Olivia Jacobs, co-artistic director of Tall Stories, the company who created the stage adaptation of Julia Donaldson’s well known children’s book, says that 60 per cent of Tall Story audiences are grown-ups.
“We forget that grown-ups love to be told a good story and to be told it well,” she says.
The much loved family classic graces the West End stage again this summer for the eight time.
It’s proved itself to be an enduring favourite, but like many great things, it started small. Jacobs reminisces about how the company started off as just three members touring around in a car and how that three man team has now transformed into a successful company that is 15-years-old and has performed shows in 14 countries across five continents. “Oddly I would say we are still quite a small company but we just do quite a lot,” she laughs.
Toby Mitchell, the other co-artistic director, and Jacobs met while working at the Soho Theatre and ‘established a connection and love of stories and storytelling’.
“We ended up taking a show to Edinburgh and all the reviews we had said to watch out for our company and that we were really interesting,” explains Jacobs, and the rest is history. But Jacobs’ love of storytelling includes a darker streak and she describes how even the first few shows Tall Stories produced were not just aimed at children. “People would say how nice it was to see a family show that had such high production values and that wasn’t patronising”.
Although it seemed revolutionary at the time, Jacobs admits that they didn’t set out to change childrens’ theatre, or even really realise the impact their work was having – they just wanted to tell a story well.
But Tall Stories was at the forefront of popularising family theatre and helped pave the way and introduce theatre to a wider family based audience and not just to children.
Their current production The Gruffalo has been performed worldwide, eight times on the West End and twice on both Broadway and at the Sydney Opera House.
“We never had any expectations of travel, we just wanted to do what we did and are thrilled that people like it,” says Jacobs.
“The company is growing gradually and organically and so are our shows. We are moving in response to our audiences and that is what has taken the shows around the world.”
When setting up shows in new territories Jacob retains creative control, traveling with the show to make sure that the show is set up just as she wants it to be.
“I also always make sure to rehearse with any and all new cast members,” she says.
Jacobs says that one of her favourite things is when dad’s come out of the show and say to their partner or children, I really enjoyed that. “They always sound surprised, like they didn’t expect to enjoy something that is classed as family theatre.”
The Gruffalo has had such a successful lifespan, standing the test of time, it shows that family theatre is an important and continually growing staple of the performance world.
“We can develop the show on so many levels and put in loads of jokes that don’t exclude children but appeal to the adults. It then becomes suitable for everyone,” says Jacobs.
Many of will have read the story, by Julia Donaldson or at least seen the beautifully illustrated images by Axel Scheffler. But what does Jacobs think is the secret to its enormous and ongoing appeal?
“It’s a tale of a small guy who wins over the big guy with brains not brawn, what’s not to like!” she says. “It’s David and Goliath – it’s a great message for the audience. Your brain is a very useful tool, it’s a great story with a great message.”
Image © Tall Stories