Feature: Telling stories of migration and displacement through children’s stories

Sabrina Mahfouz’s new children’s play Zeraffa Giraffa, (based on the picture book written by Dianne Hofmeyr and illustrated by Jane Ray), is inspired by the remarkable true story of a real giraffe called Zeraffa, and her epic journey from the plains of Ethiopia to the Jardin de Plantes in France in 1827, after being gifted to the King of France by the Pasha of Sudan.

The play, which is aimed at children aged between four and ten years old, has just finished its first run at Little Angel Theatre in Islington, receiving overwhelmingly positive reviews, and is set to begin a second run at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham at the end of this month.

This funny and emotionally engaging tale is a story that investigates complex and contemporary issues for a very young audience. The narrative explores the immigrant experience: what it’s like to travel across oceans to a brand new place; what it’s like to be different and the importance of acceptance.

A Younger Theatre asked Sabrina Mahfouz about the novel experience of adapting a children’s book for the stage. When asked how the project came about, she explains that she was invited to adapt the picture book by Omnibus Theatre and Elgiva Field, the director, both of whom were “big fans of the book, and felt it would be a relevant, resonant and slightly different story to explore for children’s theatre – plus there had to be a stunning giraffe puppet!”

The puppet in question is stunning. The story is told using a mix of giraffe toys, shadow puppetry, an enchanting life-size baby giraffe puppet, and enough magic to captivate audience members as young as eighteen months.

A lot of research went into the play. Sabrina read as much as she could around the story of Zeraffa – although the story is a famous one, there’s little in the way of concrete evidence, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. But from the start, the audience are told that the play is based on a true story, a fact that has captured the fascination of both adults and children alike.

There were also some challenges in adapting a children’s picture book for the stage, the biggest of which was focusing on which elements would be translated into a live show. “We had to decide on which parts to expand upon, which was difficult as each page offered so many possibilities,” Sabrina told A Younger Theatre. Another challenge was making the show engaging enough for all ages – a challenge that Sabrina and the team involved in bringing the production to life have risen to: “Some of the most attentive audience members are even younger than four and because there are so many elements to the production, it seems that every age has enough to keep them following and engaged.”

Despite the challenges, Sabrina has found that conveying messages via children’s theatre allows for a little more freedom. “I think you can say things without the expectation of there being as much of the very British obsession with subtext, which for me is liberating and exciting and does allow an immediate examination of complex subjects in a short space of time,” she elaborated. This lack of subtlety in a theatrical piece for children often serves the play, allowing the inclusion of elements like traditional songs in foreign languages.

When asked about how important it is to start conversations at a young age about contemporary issues, Sabrina thinks that it’s never too early to start including children in these conversations: “If children are old enough to hear and repeat what is said around them, they’re old enough to see issues such as sexism, racism, homophobia and all other types of prejudices be explored theatrically, even if in a child-appropriate way. It is never too early to get a child interested in questioning the apparent norms of our society and this questioning can help adults think more thoroughly around these issues too.”

The first run of the play has been well received, by critics and audiences alike, with the author and illustrator of the original picture book, Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray, giving the production their seal of approval, signing copies of their book for parents wanting to take the of Zeraffa the Giraffe story home.

Zeraffa Giraffa will be playing at Omnibus Theatre from November 25. For more information and to book tickets, visit https://omnibus-clapham.org/event/zeraffa-giraffa/2017-11-25/

Iqra Choudhry

Iqra Choudhry

Iqra Choudhry is a PhD student, writer, procrastinator, sometimes poet and lover of theatre. When not at the theatre, you can find her curled up with her nose in a book, or tweeting about feminism and race at @iqrathebookworm.