We caught up with Wiltshire Creative Artistic Director Gareth Machin, who has written a musical adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester along with composer Glyn Kerslake.
Why did you pick The Tailor of Gloucester, of all of Beatrix Potter’s stories, for a musical adaptation for the stage?
“This follows on from the previous two shows Glyn Kerslake and I have written together – The Night Before Christmas and Little Robin Redbreast – both of which focused very much on Christmas, so we were looking for one more story with the same qualities of anticipation and the excitement of Christmas that children love. We were drawn to The Tailor of Gloucester for that reason, rather than because it’s a Beatrix Potter story, although of course children love animals and the cosiness of Beatrix Potter’s world. It’s the same with Agatha Christie, there’s a real interest in reimagining those stories in a more contemporary way. That’s why we’ve had the different versions of Peter Rabbit through a contemporary lens. Our version of The Tailor of Gloucester is more traditional but it is a fresh retelling of the story.”
What are your own experiences of Beatrix Potter’s work, either as a child or as a parent?
“I lived in Gloucester as a teenager and I used to leave my bicycle outside the tailor of Gloucester’s shop by the Cathedral so I was very aware of Beatrix Potter as a figure. There was a museum there and her figures are very prominent in Gloucester. My son has been enjoying the retellings of Peter Rabbit.”
Why do you think Beatrix Potter’s tales endure?
“She creates worlds that children feel very safe inside. There are very memorable characters who children can relate to. Children relate to animals and cuddly toys and that all feeds into the success of the Beatrix Potter films. There are good narratives – enough happens to keep children engaged. There’s also humour and a sense of play and fun in her stories.”
What are the opportunities of adapting work by one of Britain’s best loved children’s authors and illustrators?
“There’s a lot of music in the The Tailor of Gloucester story. There’s a big moment where the cat Simpkin is being tormented by the other animals on the night before Christmas and in the book that’s all done through song and traditional rhymes. The bells of Gloucester also feature, so there was the beginning of a musical world that we could latch on to. Simpkin the cat is a wonderfully naughty character and that gives the opportunity to undercut the potential sentimentality of the piece. Children like to see bad behavior on stage and whoever is behaving badly realising they’ve done wrong and making amends so that’s useful. It’s a heart-warming story with a very simple moral. The opportunity to create something very theatrical is there because there are a lot of animals: mice, birds, fish at one point. So there’s an opportunity for puppetry which is something we haven’t done in our other shows. With the tailor we have a sympathetic character. In the other two plays we’ve written there were more traditional families and we’ve noticed the number of grandparents who bring their grandchildren to the show, so being able to have more of a grandparent figure in the show is an interesting dynamic. The character will be played as an older character who can relate to children in the slightly different way from the way parents relate to children.”
How important is it that Wiltshire Creative is making the whole show, including set and costumes?
“We’re really proud that we invest in this work for this age group. It’s hard financially making work for this age group, the performances are short and ticket prices aren’t high so we subsidise these shows. But it’s really important to be able to offer a higher quality theatrical experience to this age group and for the opportunity to share the resources that we have here. Often shows for this age don’t have those sorts of production resources behind them.”
You and Glyn have already written two successful Christmas musicals for young children, The Night Before Christmas and Little Robin Redbreast – what’s the process of writing with Glyn?
“It starts with us kicking titles around, we each pitch in different ideas. Then I write a synopsis with suggested song placements. That goes through a couple of drafts until we feel we have a solid story and an idea of the songs. I then write the script and I write what each song is going to do, and get the voices of the characters going. Once we’re happy with the script, we go back to the start and work on the songs. We work out what kind of song it’s going to be. With this show Glyn had a lot of musical ideas already. There’s a ballad that flows through the whole piece where I wrote the lyrics to his music. Normally I would write a draft song, a verse and a chorus. There are usually one or two songs where we struggle. They tend to be the simpler songs. The participation songs are tricky because they have to be so simple and it’s difficult not to make them sound like every other participation song you’ve heard. It’s really hard being simple, musically and lyrically.”
You’ve ensured over recent years that Salisbury Playhouse has something on offer for younger children over the festive period. Can you say why you think this is important?
“It’s really important. There are a lot of young children in Salisbury so there’s a big audience to reach. As brilliant as panto is, over the last few years it’s got louder and young people can find it a bit of an assault on the senses both in terms of the sound and visually. Our shows in The Salberg have grown in parallel with the change in pantomime. That’s why it’s so important that we offer these shows. There’s also something else about the space. It’s very different sitting in The Salberg with 150 people to sitting in the main house with 500 which can feel overwhelming. You’re closer to the actors, the actors interact with the children, it’s a very different experience. Even some older children find the quieter, smaller experience more engaging.”
What are the magic ingredients of a Christmas musical for this age group?
“Lots of participation opportunities to interact and for a young audience to feel they’re making a difference to how the story turns out. It needs to be no longer than an hour. It needs charming songs that work on two levels: great tunes with simple ideas but also jokes and witty lines that keep the parents engaged. Sympathetic characters with lovely actors who can represent those characters. It needs to be visually engaging so there needs to be magic in the set. Dancing, seeing the characters move around. And snow. There needs to be snow.”
The Tailor of Gloucester runs in The Salberg at Salisbury Playhouse from 9 – 28 December. For more information and tickets visit www.wiltshirecreative.co.uk.