From bedtime reading to centre stage: adapting children’s books for theatre

“Why can’t you fly now, mother?”

Because I am grown up, dearest. When people grow up they forget the way.”

 

  • Peter Pan, J.M Barrie

Mrs. Darling is a grown up, and being a grown up means that you can no longer fly to Neverland. Maybe this is because grown ups become too heavy, too doubting, or perhaps they run out of happy little thoughts to make the magic mix with pixie dust.

As J.M. Barrie timelessly observed, growing up is often associated with an inability to upkeep a once so natural energy, a dwindling creativity and an ever-increasing collection of grey suits. When we grow up, we leave all of the mystical adventures and whimsical wonderlands to gather dust at the back of an ordinary wardrobe, restricting our understanding to what we empirically observe.

We tell ourselves that we become ‘too old’ for children’s stories. We enter a sanitised world which favours rigid organisation over the organic imagination – so it’s really no wonder that most adults are utterly miserable. But could everything that we’ve left behind provide the remedy we need to tackle the big bad world of adulthood?

Writer and director Miranda Larson seems to think so. Growing up alongside trusty companions like The Cat in the Hat and Peter Pan, she now specialises in children’s entertainment. Larson is nostalgically immersed in the child’s imagination, having written extensively for TV shows such as Fireman Sam, Bob the Builder and Power Rangers. She certainly relishes the variety: ‘my days are never dull’, she notes, ‘one minute I can be writing about fairies and the next I am writing about dinosaurs. I am continually playing, creating and using my imagination’.

Now, it’s time to tackle the seven seas. Larson is currently adapting the best-selling children’s novel The Night Pirates from page to stage. It tells the story of a young boy and his side-kick cat who are whisked aboard in the dead of night by a gang of girl pirates. Together, they embark on an adventure to outsmart an island of older pirates and snatch the buried treasure straight from their snoozing hands: ‘I fell in love with the book immediately. I loved the idea of a story set at night and I felt the illustrations would make a great theatre set.’

Larson has taken meticulous care to stay as true to the book as possible – she knows her spritely target audience will take no prisoners when it comes to honesty: ‘I don’t want to disappoint fans of the book by creating something that they don’t recognise…the aim is that children will feel that the book has come to life. Every word of the book is in the stage show.’

Theatricalising the novel means that Larson can expand the tale’s colourful horizons, filling in the gaps which would otherwise be left to the imagination: ‘in the book, we know Tom set sails with a crew of girl pirates but we don’t see his journey across the sea. We see his journey across the seas in the stage show… and it’s not a smooth sailing.’ Whether it’s epic adventure, a sea-worthy sing-song or subliminal feminism you’re after, The Night Pirates is setting its sails to teach families young and old a thing or two about companionship, teamwork, and a cheeky hint of #girlpiratepower.

We may forget how to fly when we grow up, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take inspiration from the books we used to read and the worlds we used to visit: ‘we all still have our childish side somewhere inside us’, says Larson, ‘and I think some adults bring theirs out more than others’. So if we dig deep enough for the buried treasure, perhaps we’ll find a part of us that will never grow up.

The Night Pirates is playing at Rose Theatre, Kingston from 6 – 16 September. For more information and tickets, go to https://www.rosetheatrekingston.org/whats-on/the-night-pirates