Image by Ellie Kurttz
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. Films, books and songs that you loved as a child can stick with you throughout your life. However, sometimes when you revisit your old favourites, they often don’t stand up. Some of the magic and attachment you felt as a child is lost, hidden behind grown-up cynicisms. This, however, was not the case for writer/director John Ward, when he re-discovered and adapted for stage his childhood favourite book Nicobobinus with Dumbwise and RedLadder Theatre Company.
“You know when you revisit films you watched as a kid and you realise it is not as good as you remember?” the director states: “I didn’t have that with this work – it took me straight back. I was captured and thought a stage adaptation would be great.”
The book, written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, tells the tale of a young boy, Nicobobinus, whose arm gets turned into gold by an evil rich man. The adventure that ensues takes the boy across a magical world, where he encounters dragons, ghosts and even a group of murdering monks.
“It is really nuts,” laughs Ward: “But the dialogue is really great. We found that the range of characters really had potential for deeper characterisation and songs.”
“Terry Jones is a great children’s writer, in that he adds so much irony and wit and humour.”
Adapting a fantasy book like Nicobobinus for the stage, a work that includes moving mountains and underwater kingdoms, does have very real practical challenges. The director says: “Even when you’ve got those type of really heightened elements, it is quite easy to ground that in characters. It’s the stakes and craziness of the action of those characters that make it fantasy.”
Not everything can be solved in the scripting, however.
“Dragons were difficult”, he admits: “We are using bits of animation in it which is quite exciting. I try not to do it too much because it’s a kind of cheating, but the dragons are real and, again, Terry wrote them very well. They’re sensitive, artistic creatures.”
“The first thing you do, is you ground them in the character so the text works. Then you slowly find the way to make theatre out of it.”
Without the moving stage the LOST Theatre in Stockwell is providing, or the special lighting, sound and animation, it seems safe to assume a lot of imagination has had to be utilised by the cast and crew in their rehearsal time.
But, as Ward explains, the cast have adapted to this unusual way of working.
“They’re an experienced bunch on the whole, actors we’ve worked with for a number of years. But this type of show, with the high levels of production, is a new experience for them. It is quite an original Christmas show and we’re trying to things that we would want to watch.”
The very idea of an “original Christmas show” is something that excites Ward. The ambitious book has never been adapted before, making the December performance a world premiere.
“I am really proud of the show. But it is scary because it started off years ago when I said it would make a good show – and now I have to prove it!
“Things can be adapted badly and don’t quite work on stage. That side of it is quite scary. I want people to think it is something special, and maybe it could be added to the Christmas calendar.”
Terry Jones himself has seen early versions of the show, with the Monty Python star adding his seal of approval to the fledgling work. The writer, whose work includes another famous children’s work, Eric the Viking, said: “Nicobobinus is one of my favourite characters.
“I saw an in-development version of the show last year at Greenwich Theatre and was blown away by its energy and vibrancy – and I will be there in the front row in December!”
So, it seems that nostalgia towards your childhood favourite books, films and songs can be a useful thing. For John Ward, he has taken a book he loved as a youngster, a work seen as too ambitious to be adapted, and turned into a full stage production. It was a story that meant so much to him as a child because of its imagination, characters and, above all, heart.
And it seems, that with a passion project such as this, Dumbwise and RedLadder Theatre are trying to capture the imaginations of youngsters themselves – and hopefully, one day, inspire new nostalgia for the next generation.