‘Wonder tales’: Philip Pullman and Philip Wilson on staging the Grimm Tales

For Philip Pullman, working on a new version of the Grimm Tales was a ‘dream job’.  Here, he explains why they work so well on the stage, while below, theatre director Philip Wilson describes how he adapted and staged the Tales, and what to consider when staging them yourself…

Philip Pullman: When Penguin Classics asked me if I was interested in writing a fresh version of some of the tales of the Brothers Grimm, I had to suppress a whoop of delight. Actually, I’m not sure that I did suppress it. I’ve always relished folk tales, and the famous Grimm collection is one of the richest of all. It was a dream of a job.

Reading them through carefully and making notes, I was struck again by the freshness, the swiftness, the sheer strangeness of the best of them. I was being asked to choose fifty or so out of the more than two hundred, and there were certainly at least that many that deserved a new outing. The most interesting thing, perhaps, from a dramatic point of view, is that they consist entirely of events: there’s no character development, because the characters are not fully developed three-dimensional human beings so much as fixed, flat types like those of the commedia dell’arte, or like the little cardboard actors (a penny plain, tuppence-coloured) we find in the toy theatre. If we’re looking for psychological depth, we won’t find it in the fairy tale.

Nor is there anything in the way of poetic description or rich and musical language. Princesses are beautiful, forests are dark, witches are wicked, things are as red as blood or as white as snow: it’s all very perfunctory.

What we find instead of these literary qualities is a wonderful freedom and zest, entirely unencumbered by likelihood. The most marvellous or preposterous or hilarious or terrifying events happen with all the swiftness of dreams. They work splendidly for oral telling, and the very best of them have a quality that C.S. Lewis ascribed to myths: we remember them instantly after only one hearing, and we never forget them. The job of anyone telling them again is to do so as clearly as possible, and not let their own personality get in the way.

They can be told, of course, and they can be dramatised, in any of a thousand different ways. They have been many times, and they will be many more. This particular version was very enjoyable for me to read and to watch because Philip Wilson is so faithful to the clarity and the force of the events, just as Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were faithful to the talents of the various storytellers whose words they listened to and transcribed two hundred years ago. And they still work.


Wilson, PhilipPhilip Wilson: The Brothers Grimm’s stories have been retold countless times over the past two centuries. Katharine Mary Briggs, Italo Calvino and Marina Warner included versions in their classic collections of fairy tales, and writers such as Angela Carter, Terry Pratchett and Carol Ann Duffy have revelled in inventive variations. In recent years, two films of Snow White appeared, Maleficent re-imagined the story of Sleeping Beauty, Sondheim’s Into the Woods was filmed, and Terry Gilliam gave the lives of the brothers themselves a high-spirited storybook twist in The Brothers Grimm. Moreover, the latest anthropological research indicates that the origins of folk tales such as Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast can be traced back millennia.

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Annabel Betts as Little Red Riding Hood in the 2014 production of Grimm Tales at Shoreditch Town Hall

In 2012, Philip Pullman selected fifty of his favourite Grimm Tales to retell. His intention in doing this, he declared, was ‘to produce a version that was as clear as water’. In the same way, my dramatisations seek to retain the limpid and beautifully crafted character of the original stories. The telling of the Tales is shared between an ensemble of performers, who play husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, princes and princesses, wise kings and wicked witches, snakes and birds.

The original productions, drawing on puppetry, movement and music, were a theatrical celebration of live storytelling. At Shoreditch Town Hall, we brought to life the adventures of Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, The Three Snake Leaves, Hans-my-Hedgehog and The Juniper Tree. At Bargehouse, meanwhile, we retold the Tales of The Frog King, or Iron Heinrich, The Three Little Men in the Woods, Thousandfurs, The Goose Girl at the Spring, Hansel and Gretel and Faithful Johannes. Also included in the published volume is my adaptation of The Donkey Cabbage, a story we didn’t find a home for, but is too good to forgo.

This was a deliberately eclectic selection, which embraced a variety of classic story plots – quests and voyages, rags to riches and overcoming monsters – within the core genres of comedy, tragedy, romance… and, sometimes, surrealist farce! Their appeal lay also in how they have echoes of Shakespeare and Ancient Greek tragedy, incorporating as they do rites of passage, ghosts of fathers, animal transformations. And how they embody the themes of human life: births, marriages and deaths; sibling support (or rivalry); parental cruelty; the hardships of poverty; jealousy and desire.

Leda Hodgson and Nessa Matthews in The Goose Girl At The Spring in the 2015 production at Bargehouse on the South Bank

While it is eminently possible to stage these stories in traditional theatre environments, ours was an immersive approach: the audience were divided into groups, and took different journeys through the various parts of the venue. After each Tale, this group was guided by the performers to another space. On their way, they glimpsed images evoking hints of other Tales untold, as they passed through rooms from which other characters seemed to have only just departed – leaving Cinderella’s pile of lentils by an iron stove; Snow White’s glass coffin, along with seven identical small beds; Rumpelstiltskin’s spinning wheel in a shaft of light, in a room with straw on one side and a cloud of gold objects on the other. And so on…

The world of the play was ‘scruffy salvage’: an elemental world of rough-hewn wood, tarnished metal, unrefined cloth. The costumes were tattered, puppets were constructed from found objects, and everyday items were often used in place of the thing described. All were transfomed by the Storytellers’ investment in them. Wooden scrubbing brushes were sewn onto a duffle coat for Hans-my-Hedgehog’s prickly skin; thick rope stood in for Rapunzel’s hair; an enamel coffee pot became a white duck. This approach both ensured that these dark Tales were not prettified, and gave a sense that the performers had drawn on what might lie around them, to supplement and enhance the storytelling. We invited the audience to complete the picture with their imagination.

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The Three Little Men In The Woods, in the Bargehouse production of Grimm Tales

But that is just one approach. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are stories themselves. You only have to look at how the Tales have been illustrated: a brief internet search will reveal endless depictions in different styles, to offer inspiration. A very brief list might include: Elenore Abbott, Angela Barrett, Edward Burne-Jones, Katharine Cameron, Walter Crane, George Cruikshank, Gustave Doré, Edmund Dulac, David Hockney, Franz Jüttner, Margaret Pocock, Evans Price, Arthur Rackham… In recent years, fairy tales have also been drawn upon by a range of artists, from Paula Rego to the fashion photographer Tim Walker.

Although the stories are uncluttered in language and spare in detail, nonetheless they resonate with all manner of human experience. Philip Pullman is right that on the page, the characters appear flat: these are archetypes, defined by their class, profession or role in society. In fairy tales, people are what they do. This does not mean, though, that there is no room for dramatic characterisation. The stories certainly include tension and conflict. And they deal with universal situations, in which the drama often springs from family ties: the characters could be us.

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Simon Wegrzyn as The Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood, in the Shoreditch production of Grimm Tales

In German, fairy tales are known as wonder tales, a term that encourages us to celebrate these fantastic characters and episodes in all their eccentric glory, from the picturesque to the grotesque, and from the magical to the mundane – free, above all, from the sanitisation and lavish naturalism of later versions, not least Disney films.

Although the Tales were written down, shaped and curated by the Brothers Grimm, these stories emerged from oral traditions: they have always been intended to be spoken aloud. There is an innate human desire to gather together and listen to a storyteller, or to witness a group reenacting a tale. My approach has been to divide up the voices among a group of Storytellers. Each Tale starts with some variation on ‘Once…’ (the universally agreed way of starting a story), followed by a brief introduction to the key figures and situation – along with their voices. Thereafter, the words are shared in three modes of speech: dialogue, narration and ‘thinking aloud’. Viewpoint and attitude is crucial throughout. Also, you’ll note how characters move from retelling to reliving events: the intention is always to ensure that the story is immediate, is happening right now – not comfortably in the past.

Philip Pullman compares storytelling to jazz, observing that, ‘the substance of the tale is there already, just as the sequence of chords in a song is there ready for a jazz musician, and our task is to step from chord to chord, from event to event, with all the lightness and swing we can.’ That sense of working in tandem with other players, while retaining an improvisatory quality, is key to staging these Tales. It’s all about the ensemble.

Although any number of these Tales can be told, and in any order, in the original productions more familiar stories were performed first, before the audience was led into darker, less-well-known territories: deeper into the forest. Most importantly, these Tales live most when they are imbued with the imaginations of those who are telling them: so it is not only right but crucial that you find your own path through the text.

Whichever route you take, what’s important is what happens next. Philip Pullman has observed that, ‘Swiftness is a great virtue in the fairy tale. A good tale moves with a dreamlike speed from event to event, pausing only to say as much as is needed and no more.’

My intention has been to tell these Tales with a similar economy, clarity and passion.


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern: I’m delighted to announce that amateur performing rights for Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales are now available on application. Like the very popular Arabian Nights by Dominic Cooke, this version of the Tales is a simple but effective adaptation that harnesses the power of storytelling to take audiences into a magical world.

It also offers you great flexibility: there are twelve Tales included in the published playtext, enough for two complete productions, and companies can choose any number and combination to suit their own requirements (the performing rights fee will reflect the number of Tales to be performed). There is also great flexibility in casting. There are more than a hundred potential roles for very large casts, or the play can be staged with just 4f 4m and lots of doubling.

The Tales themselves range from the familiar ones beloved by children everywhere, to the unexpected and yet-to-be-discovered. So there really is something for everyone.

To enquire about performing rights, contact me by email, phone (020 8749 4953) or via the form on our Plays to Perform website.


FormattedPhilip Pullman’s Grimm Tales, adapted for the stage by Philip Wilson, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £8.79 (RRP £10.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Production photographs by Tom Medwell.

‘Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it’: Paul Clayton on being a Working Actor

Clayton, PaulPaul Clayton has been an actor for almost forty years, a career spanning roles in Peep Show, Doctor Who, Wolf Hall, Hollyoaks and more. As his new book The Working Actor is published, he reflects on how it all started, what it takes to keep going, and how you can make it, too…

In my role as Chairman of the Board of the Actors Centre, I’ve hosted a series of lunchtime interviews with actors at various stages of their careers, helping them share their experience and expertise with others. Partly out of laziness, and partly out of a desire to achieve some sort of commonality in the framework for the interviews, I begin each one with the question: ‘How did it all start? When was that moment that you knew that this was what you wanted to do?’ The answers proved revealing. For Juliet Stevenson, it was reading a poem at school. For Josie Lawrence, it was finding out that she could entertain members of her family. For Douglas Hodge, it was a natural step from being a teenage impressionist. Mark Rylance recalled helping to build the scenery for a high-school play in America. Sir Derek Jacobi remembered a particular feeling as he ran down the street wearing his mother’s wedding veil.

For all of the interviewees, however, one thing was the same. There had been one moment when they knew the only thing they wanted to be was an actor. I think my own particular Damascene conversion happened in Miss Woodcock’s class, late on a Thursday afternoon, in an infant school nestling in the foothills and slag heaps of the Soviet Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire. Having press-ganged Susan Clarke and Christine Evans into sharing the stage with me, I played the role of a heroic soldier battling for his loved one against the forces of an evil witch. Imaginatively titled Evil Spirits, and with its envelope-pushing casting of myself as the heroic, and no doubt heterosexual, soldier, it entertained the other members of our class for nearly ten minutes. I remember the applause, and I remember thinking: ‘I like this.’ From that moment on, I can honestly say that I knew what I wanted to be. An actor. I was seven.

Getting there, doing it, and making a living out of it, is what my new book The Working Actor is about. I’ve managed to do that now for nearly forty years, something of which I am proud. I’ve spent a great deal of time unemployed. There have been weeks when seven imaginative ways with a baked potato has been my diet. Approaching sixty, I’d like to think I can call myself ‘a Working Actor’. It says ‘actor’ on my passport, and it says ‘actor’ on my tax return. I make a living out of it, and I know that I’m incredibly lucky to have a job that I always wanted and that I still enjoy.

No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor.

Luck is obviously a great part of success, and that has to be acknowledged. Luck can be helped along, though, and working hard at your career will bring its own rewards. Understanding the business, how it works, and your place in it, is crucial. How to look at the work that is out there, the jobs, the opportunities, and how to talk to people who have the power to give you those jobs, and to give you those opportunities. To find out how they make their choices. To find out what you can do to maximise the chance of their choice being you. That’s what the book aims to do. To help you manage your day-to-day life as an actor. No one can teach you to act, but you can learn how to be an actor. A Working Actor.

One of the most important pieces of advice I think I’ve ever been given was from a fabulous old tutor called John McGregor at my drama school. He’d been a young hopeful at the RSC in the mid-fifties, alongside Olivier and Ian Holm. It hadn’t worked for John in terms of stardom, but it had worked for him in terms of being a Working Actor. When he was our technique tutor at Manchester Polytechnic in the mid-seventies, he was still regularly appearing in television dramas and making a good living out of his acting. His mantra was one I have tried to follow ever since:

‘Every day do at least one thing that might lead to work, and then get on with living your life.’

I think what he was trying to say was don’t let the whole of your life be consumed by being an out-of-work actor. Don’t forget to be a person. People buy people. So often in audition situations, sitting on the other side of the table, I have seen people come in absolutely desperate for the job to the point where I have had no chance to get to know them as a person. As a result, there is no hook with which I have been able to engage with them. They haven’t got the job.

The Working Actor consists of twenty-six subjects. An eclectic mix, and made as a result of my own individual choice. At the end of each article is a work task. So, on the basis of Mr McGregor’s mantra, my book gives you at least five weeks of one thing to do each day before getting on with your life. Assuming you take the weekend off! Not all of them may apply to everyone, but if just one of them leads to something, then I have done my job.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is.

There may be a lucky few who, after leaving drama school, will jump from job to job, but for the vast majority it will be a constant fight, a struggle, to keep that employment as continuous as possible. It will require huge reserves of energy and focus to cope with unemployment, and it will rely on a constant input of imagination and creativity to maximise the opportunities that come along.

Not for nothing do people call it ‘The Industry’ or ‘The Business’ – a business is exactly what it is, and that’s how you have to treat it and behave in it if you are to succeed.

I sincerely hope that The Working Actor helps. Helps you on a day-to-day basis. Helps you to manage your career as a business, and to maximise your potential. Above all, I hope it helps you realise those childhood dreams.


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The Working Actor by Paul Clayton is published this week by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £10.39 (RRP £12.99), visit our website here.

Join the author in conversation with Miss L (Twitter’s @ProResting) to discover the essential steps to building a successful career. A Samuel French event at Camden People’s Theatre, Monday 9 May, 8-9pm, booking required.

Victoria Wood: ‘Giving Notes’

VictoriaWood

We were saddened by the death of Victoria Wood this week – she was a gleeful, mischievous presence on our screens for so many years, and will be sorely missed. Here’s a reminder of her talent in her sketch included in the RSC’s The Shakespeare Revue – appropriately enough as we commemorate the death of William Shakespeare 400 years ago. In this sketch, ‘Giving Notes’, the director of an amateur production of Hamlet offers the cast some priceless advice…

Right. Bit of hush please. Connie! Thank you. Now that was quite a good rehearsal; I was quite pleased. There were a few raised eyebrows when we let it slip the Piecrust Players were having a bash at Shakespeare but I think we’re getting there. But I can’t say this too often: it may be Hamlet but it’s got to be Fun Fun Fun!

Now we’re still very loose on lines. Where’s Gertrude? I’m not so worried about you – if you ‘dry’ just give us a bit of business with the shower cap. But Barbara – you will have to buckle down. I mean, Ophelia’s mad scene, ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remem­brance’ – it’s no good just bunging a few herbs about and saying, ‘Don’t mind me, I’m a loony’. Yes?

Right, Act One Scene One, on the ramparts. Now I know the whist table is a bit wobbly, but until Stan works out how to adapt the Beanstalk it’ll have to do. What’s this? Atmosphere? Yes – now what did we work on, Philip? Yes, it’s midnight, it’s jolly cold. What do we do when it’s cold? We go ‘Brrr’, and we do this (slaps hands on arms). Right, well don’t forget again, please. And cut the hot-water bottle, it’s not working.

Where’s my ghost of Hamlet’s father? Oh yes, what went wrong tonight, Betty? He’s on nights still, is he? OK. Well, it’s not really on for you to play that particular part, Betty – you’re already doing the Player Queen and the back legs of Hamlet’s donkey. Well, we don’t know he didn’t have one, do we? Why waste a good cossy?

Hamlet – drop the Geordie, David, it’s not coming over. Your characterisation’s reasonably good, David, but it’s just far too gloomy. Fair enough, make him a little bit depressed at the beginning, but start lightening it from Scene Two, say from the hokey-cokey onwards.

Polonius, try and show the age of the man in your voice and in your bearing, rather than waving the bus-pass. I think you’ll find it easier when we get the walking frame. Is that coming, Connie? OK.

The Players’ scene: did any of you feel it had stretched a bit too . . . ? Yes. I think we’ll go back to the tumbling on the entrance, rather than the extract from Barnum. You see, we’re running at six hours twenty now, and if we’re going to put those soliloquies back in . . .

Gravediggers? Oh yes, gravediggers. The problem here is that Shakespeare hasn’t given us a lot to play with – I feel we’re a little short on laughs, so Harold, you do your dribbling, and Arthur, just put in anything you can remember from the Ayckbourn, yes?

The mad scene: apart from lines, much better, Barbara – I can tell you’re getting more used to the straitjacket. Oh – any news on the skull, Connie? I’m just thinking, if your little dog pulls through, we’ll have to fall back on papier mâché. All right, Connie, as long as it’s dead by the dress . . .

That’s it for tonight then; thank you. I shall expect you all to be word-perfect by the next rehearsal. Have any of you realised what date we’re up to? Yes, April the twenty-seventh! And when do we open? August! It’s not long!


Here’s a version of the sketch performed by Julie Walters:


Shakespeare RevueThe above is an extract from The Shakespeare Revue compiled by Christopher Luscombe and Malcolm McKee, published by Nick Hern Books.

‘Hockey sticks and navy knicks’: Kath Gotts on Crush: The Musical

Gotts, Kath 2015-2_croppedWhen Kath Gotts and Maureen Chadwick started writing a musical about the pupils at an all-girls school rebelling against their tyrannical headmistress, they didn’t know it would take decades to reach the stage. But when it finally opened in 2015,  Crush was acclaimed as a hilarious blend of Malory Towers and St Trinian’s – a family-friendly hit with a touch of subversiveness. Here, as the script is published for others to perform, composer-lyricist Kath Gotts explains the appeal of schoolgirl fiction, and why it’s perfect for a musical…

Crush has a short title, but it took a long time – possibly a record-breakingly long time – to reach the stage.

Maureen Chadwick 2015

Maureen Chadwick

The show was first conceived when I was not that long out of school uniform myself, when the tragi-comic emotional territory of first love and adolescent angst was sadly rather fresh in my memory. Maureen [Chadwick, who wrote the book for the musical] and I decided we wanted to write a musical together and with our shared delight in Fred and Ginger movies we had a mission to write our own version of a romantic comedy in classic book musical form. Inspired by our love of the British tradition of schoolgirl fiction – from Malory Towers to St Trinian’s, and the old Girl’s Own annuals – we thought it would be great fun to write a musical set in that world. In fact, we were amazed that nobody else had got there before us and that here was this whole rich genre as yet unpilfered by musical-theatre writers, with its own distinctive milieu and lingo, and the schoolgirl crush providing new love-story material for musical-comedy treatment.

We entered the very embryonic Crush (then called Sugar and Spice) for the 1989 Vivian Ellis Prize for New Musicals – three songs and a synopsis. We were thrilled to find we’d made it into the televised final. When asked to describe the show I cheerfully explained that it was a traditional romantic musical – just a simple case of ‘girl meets girl, girl loses girl, one girl finds a boy and the other one finds another girl’. We’d heard that Cameron Mackintosh was rooting for us, but on the big day itself he unfortunately wasn’t there in person and the rest of the panel seemed altogether perplexed by a love song from one schoolgirl to another – one suggested that he could imagine the show appealing to the ‘old men in macs’ brigade. Naturally, we didn’t win.

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Catherine Hayworth, Eleanor Brown, Georgia Oldman and Emma Harrold in Crush. Photo by Robert Day.

Crush isn’t so much a musical of its time as a musical that has had to wait its time. Back in the late eighties and nineties the very notion of celebrating a romance between schoolgirls was seen as radically subversive. Most of the cast of the 2015 premiere at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry weren’t even born in 1988 when Section 28 came into force. Finally, however, the new Crush has emerged into a world where a light, frothy, show featuring a schoolgirl romance can be seen as what we always wanted it to be – a big-hearted show for all the family.

The love story in Crush is innocently played out – it represents a quest for self-expression and the claiming of one’s own true identity. Our story is set in a hitherto idealistic and liberal girls’ boarding school – Dame Dorothea Dosserdale School for Girls – which has recently been taken over by the tyrannical and repressive headmistress, Miss Bleacher (who has a couple of great belter numbers to help make her point). The first targets for her new moral crusade are two girls accused of ‘indecent and unnatural behaviour’ in the art room after hours, and the race is on to identify and expel them.

Sara Crowe, Georgia Oldman, James Meunier, Rosemary Ashe and Kirsty Malpass. Photo by Robert Day.

Like Elle Woods – the not-so-dumb blonde in Legally Blonde – or Tracy Turnblad – the not-so-slim girl with a beehive in Hairspray – our heroine Susan Smart is an outsider, a clever scholarship girl who loves another girl. Only it’s the wrong one. Susan has to navigate her way through her first lessons in love and learn to stand up for herself and her right to love whomever she chooses. And everyone else has to stand up and be counted too in order to save the school and everything it stands for. The girls are aided in this by the trusty Deputy Head, Miss Austin, and by a mysterious new games mistress, Miss Givings – who rallies their team spirit in the tap-dancing hockey number ‘Navy Knicks’. There’s also Benny the oddjob boy, who is not at all who he seems and is set to throw a romantic cat among the pigeons in Act Two when we run away to London…

The musical style has a nod to Irving Berlin and Julian Slade mixed with early sixties pop and some jazzy overtones. I like to think there’s a flavour of innocent sophistication to the songs! Steven Edis has done some wonderful arrangements for a band of seven players and it’s a thoroughly joyful musical – plenty of laughs, smiles and a few tears along the way.

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Georgia Oldman, Charlotte Miranda-Smith and Stephanie Clift. Photo by Robert Day.

Like our previous musical, Bad Girls The Musical [which premiered at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2006, before transferring to the West End in 2007), Crush is written for a predominantly female cast. Both shows are set in all-female environments – Bad Girls is set in a women’s prison – where the action and stories are driven by the female characters. If you apply the Bechdel test to either of these shows – does it (1) feature at least two roles for women who (2) talk to each other about (3) something other than a man – they pass with flying colours! Professor Rosemary Auchmuty – who wrote a piece for the Crush programme, reproduced in the published playtext – has written extensively about how the all-female worlds of schoolgirl fiction have been so empowering to the young women who have devoured those books since they first started appearing as early as the eighteenth century. They showed that girls and women could be the protagonists in their own stories, and that whatever derring-do was required, they too could fulfil those roles.

The world of schoolgirl fiction is ripe for musical comedy, but it also has great heart and integrity. A lot of people assume that Daisy Pulls It Off was a musical – but it actually only included the school song.  Crush takes on some of that same flavour but is less of a direct parody. We always used to say that we wanted our artistic style to be ‘subversion by seduction’. In other words, make whatever you’re doing thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable and get your message across with a smile. Crush is an idealistic show – but it’s not simplistic. Like a good pint of Guinness, there are creamy bubbles on top but a deeply delicious pint underneath.

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Brianna Ogunbawo, Charlotte Miranda-Smith, Eleanor Brown, Sara Crowe, Stephanie Clift, Catherine Hayworth, Emma Harrold and Jennifer Potts. Photo by Robert Day.

We were really thrilled when Nick Hern approached us about publishing Crush. Not only is it a wonderful culmination of its long journey to the stage, but more importantly it also represents the possibility of new beginnings for the show, with potential productions by amateur theatre companies, schools and youth groups. We know from our workshops and from our first production that Crush is a really fun show to perform, and we can’t wait for others to have a crack at it.

So ‘Put on your navy knicks, Pick up your hockey sticks’ and let’s all say ‘Bully Off’ for Crush!


Watch the trailer for the 2015 touring production of Crush:


FormattedCrush: The Musical, the complete book and lyrics by Maureen Chadwick and Kath Gotts, is out now, published by Nick Hern Books.

To buy a copy for just £7.99 (20% off the RRP of £9.99), visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Facing the Fear: Bella Merlin on overcoming stage fright

Stage fright afflicts many actors, and has the power to drive you away from the stage for months, years, or even a lifetime. In her new book, Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright, performer, author and teacher Bella Merlin shows you how to meet the challenge – or simply how to prepare yourself in case that day should ever come. Here she recalls her own experience of stage fright, and what it taught her about how to deal with it.

In 2004, I was smitten with an overwhelming bout of stage fright. It was very near the end of a five-month run of David Hare’s powerful verbatim play The Permanent Way, directed by Max Stafford-Clark for his company Out of Joint in collaboration with the National Theatre. I’ll let my production journal reveal the pride and fall:

 May 1st 2004: Last night at the National Theatre

The last night at the National and the end of something very special. I’ve never before felt so strongly that performing a play could be so important. The audiences have been incredible, with all kinds of eulogies – from critics, public, theatre professionals, stage-door staff and ushers. It has been extraordinary.

It’ll be good to get out of London, though. Not that I’ve been nervous, not that it’s ever worried me who’s in and what they might think. But who knows? – There might be a sense of ‘pressure off’ among us all, so that we can finish this long run with some playful fun.

May 5th: First night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Courtyard Studio Theatre

What a nightmare!

Tonight I had every actor’s worst possible scenario. I get midway through a sentence – and my brain shuts down. All those thoughts I’d had about being out of London – the pressure off and the fun on – couldn’t have been further from the truth. Earlier in the day during the tech rehearsal, my fellow actor Matthew Dunster looked out into the auditorium of the intimate Courtyard Theatre, where the front row is barely a foot from the stage. ‘God, they’re close!’ he said. ‘This is scary!’ I didn’t think anything of it at the time, apart from being surprised that any of us should find anything scary so far into the run.

Then – during the show – I walk to the front of the stage in the role of the Investment Banker and, as always during this moment, I address a member of the audience. ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but I can only work when I feel the hot breath of a competitor down my neck.’ Well, that’s what I’m supposed to say…

Instead, I manage to say, ‘Well, I don’t know about you…’ but then, as I look at this man on the fourth row, I can see the whites of his eyes. ‘Wow!’ I think. ‘You really are close, aren’t you?’ And at that moment, any connection to the play is cut in my brain. I have no idea what I’m supposed to say next.

Strangely, I don’t get the mad pumping of adrenalin that I’ve had in the past when I’ve momentarily tripped over a word. No heart pounding, no instant sense of fight or flight. Just a feeling of floating away… Into oblivion… As if I’m in a dream and nothing really matters… In this fleeting moment, it doesn’t matter that I’m eyeballing a total stranger and saying whatever nonsensical words come out of my mouth. It doesn’t matter that Max Stafford-Clark and Ian Brown (Artistic Director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse) are watching, and his casting director, and a full house of audience from Leeds. It’s just me and this kind of floating-away feeling.

The moment maybe lasts a split second, yet it seems like a thousand years. Somehow I retrieve the next line and manage to get to the end of the scene seemingly in control. But all the time, I just want to slip into this strange kind of fainting place. I get off stage feeling totally, utterly spaced out.

And then it hits. The shakes and the palpitations kick in. It’s as if my legs from pelvis to knee don’t exist – it’s just thin air. My peripheries have vanished. I can’t feel my hands. Maybe I’d experienced some kind of ‘connection overload’ out there. What I mean is that in the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, I hadn’t really been able to see the eyes of the person whom I’d picked out in the audience for the Investment Banker’s ‘hot breath of a competitor’ line. Here, however, the guy on the fourth row was as clear as daylight. And he was looking straight back at me. There was a true connection, and maybe the electrical currents of that connection overloaded my brain, giving me a moment of meltdown. Who knows? Whatever…

 Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

Bella Merlin performing in The Permanent Way by David Hare (photo by Geraint Lewis)

May 12th: First night at the Oxford Playhouse

I’m just so glad to be back in a bigger space. You’d think this verbatim play would be perfectly designed for intimate studio spaces, but I’m so much happier now that we’re back in the big theatre of the Oxford Playhouse. Apart from anything else, I can’t see the audience!

May 14th: Third night at the Oxford Playhouse

I don’t believe it!

It’s the last time Sir David Hare is going to see the play and I do it again! I fuck up! I’m shocked and appalled at myself. This time it was a stupid fluff, and again as the Investment Banker. What is it with that character? She’s supposed to be calm and confident. Instead of saying, ‘In fact, you can hardly get out of the country without using something I’ve had my finger in,’ I say, ‘In fact, you can hardly get your finger… out of… something I’ve had my finger in…!’ In that split second, my brain does a million somersaults as I strain to bring everything back to the present tense. But what a load of bollocks came out of my mouth! And I know what Sir David is like! I know he won’t let me off the hook!

Sure enough, he’s backstage after the show in the middle of a conversation – and suddenly he sees me. ‘And as for you!’ he booms down the corridor. ‘Oh, no – could you tell?’ I wince. ‘Of course I could tell! It was a load of rubbish!…’ And off we all troop into the Yorkshire night. And the knight goes off to the station to catch the last train back to London. And yes, yes – I’ll never work in British theatre again…!

My stage fright grew worse in the final two weeks of the run. I came down with chronic laryngitis and could barely be heard. It was as if my body didn’t want me to go out onto the stage and into the spotlight any more, but, with no understudies, I had no choice.

As it turned out, I wasn’t alone in feeling performance anxiety so very late in this long run, and little by little some of the other actors spoke of how uneasy they were feeling. It was then I began to realise that sharing our fear-based stories brings with it a kind of talking cure.

The talking cure

It takes courage to be an actor. It takes even greater courage to admit how terrifying it can be. Yet the very act of admitting it can be transformative. Describing the actor as An Acrobat of the Heart, the writer, director and acting teacher Stephen Wangh writes, ‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”, so in the act of naming it you are already converting the fear into usable energy.’ Certainly sharing my ‘shameful’ secret with some of my fellow actors was an important part of dealing with the situation. That said, not all of them wanted to talk about their experiences. And it’s true that the small amount of literature that exists about stage fright tends to stem from psychologists and theatre scholars, rather than the actors themselves. There’s something of a conspiracy of silence. Which isn’t surprising. We all know that stage fright is an irrational fear. After all, the audience and the performance situation can’t (usually) harm us. So the damaging force has to be our own inner messages. In fact, all too easily stage fright can feel like some sort of mental illness, or what German scholar Adolph Kielblock (back in the 1890s) called, ‘the result of a morbid state of the imagination’. That’s almost the scariest part of the fear: we’re doing it to ourselves. And if we’re not careful, we start perpetuating our own downfall. Our morbid imagination conjures up all sorts of catastrophic conclusions that wholly outweigh any rational assessment of the situation – like ‘I’ll never work in British theatre again…!’

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‘It takes real courage to say, “I am afraid”’ – Stephen Wangh

The thing is that, whether we realise it or not, we’re going to talk about our stage fright anyway. If we’re not going to talk about it out loud to others, we’re going to find ourselves talking about it over and over and over in our heads. In fact, there aren’t many healthy options when it comes to dealing with stressful situations. Sometimes we pretend they don’t bother us. Sometimes we try to avoid them. Yet both of these strategies (according to writer Taylor Clark) ‘are destined to fail’. Clark suggests that if we try to control our emotions or we try to avoid the stressful situation, we actually keep our fears alive – because then a significant part of our thoughts is taken up with worrying about how we’re going to avoid it. It’s a downward spiral. Worrying may have the short-term pay-off of making us less afraid, but in the long term it traps us in a cycle of anxiety. This cycle of anxiety is perpetuated by the fact that the voice in our head (‘the Fear Voice,’ as sports psychologist Don Green calls it) doesn’t just talk – it literally poisons us. It leads our brain to create more stress chemicals such as cortisol. And these stress chemicals increase our physical state of alarm – and so the situation simply grows worse. Our inner Fear Voice is chemically – as well as psychologically – unhealthy. So we might as well talk about our stage fright out loud!

Yes, indeed, talking about our anxieties has been scientifically proven to help. It’s known in psychology as ‘flooding therapy’. Every time we confront, describe and relive our thoughts about a negative experience, we find that ‘the very act of disclosure lessens these thoughts’. So by putting our feelings into words, we actually change how our brain deals with the stressful information. (Not least because we’re producing less cortisol.) It’s also known as ‘mindful noting’. And the very act of translating our stressful feelings into words (or mindfully noting them) is almost more therapeutic than understanding them. As we try to put the chaos of our feelings into logical sentences, we find ourselves unpicking that chaos, like knots in a string. And then we can be more objective about what we’re feeling, whether or not we actually understand it. (‘I feel afraid – though I’ve no idea why – but at least I feel better for naming it “fear”.’)

Of course, it’s very difficult for us as actors to confess that we’re experiencing anything that might in any way impede our work as professionals. Jobs are hard enough to come by without directors or casting directors getting a whiff that we might be afraid of what we do. Yet if we don’t talk about it, our Fear Voice keeps us alone with our fear, and coping with a fear alone can be difficult and distressing. As biophysicist Stefan Klein puts it: ‘Loneliness is a burden for spirit and body. Getting support is normally one of the best ways of dealing with stress.’ So rather than churning our anxieties over in our heads, we should share our fears out loud. That way, we can change our damaging inner monologue and, thus, reduce our stress hormones. This is pretty important for us as actors, as stress hormones do two unhelpful things. They undermine our immune system (and no actor can afford to be ill) and they affect our memory (and absolutely no actor can afford to lose their memory!). As I explore in my book, Facing the Fear, loss of memory and stage fright are intricately interwoven. So talking about our fear might actually improve our memory, which in turn will reduce our stage fright. Seems like a no-brainer to me!

It’s important to remember that many actors never suffer bad stage fright. Most of us experience a lively adrenalin buzz – and that’s perfectly normal, if not actually rather helpful. The point of Facing the Fear is to dispel the unhelpful nerves. If you’ve never suffered from stage fright, reading the book is a chance for you to get to know what your fellow actors might be going through. And there’s no need to worry that by knowing all the ins and outs of stage fright, you’re somehow going to provoke it. In fact, the opposite is true. A certain performance buzz can be a benefit to any actor. Not only that, but, if you read my book, you’ll see that any unnecessary stage fright can ultimately be overcome. In fact, the monster is rather funny when you look it in the eye. It need be no more frightening than Shrek!


FormattedThe above is an edited extract from Facing the Fear: An Actor’s Guide to Overcoming Stage Fright by Bella Merlin, published by Nick Hern Books

To buy your copy for £10.39 (RRP £12.99) plus P&P, visit the Nick Hern Books website here.

Bella Merlin discusses her book in a National Theatre Platform on 7 June 2016 at 5.30pm. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website here.

Author photo by The Riker Brothers.

‘We see only what we want to see’: Simon McBurney on Complicite’s The Encounter

Production shot 3 (c) Robbie JackWhen actor and theatre-maker Simon McBurney first read Amazon Beaming – Petru Popescu’s book about a National Geographic photographer, Loren McIntyre, who went into the rainforest to take photos of the rarely seen Mayoruna tribe, only to lose his way back – he knew he would one day attempt to stage it. But how?

Twenty years later he found a way. The Encounter, a solo show performed by McBurney, opened at the Barbican this month as part of Complicite’s UK and international tour. It incorporates innovative technology to build a shifting world of sound as it traces McIntyre’s extraordinary journey, and along the way explores the outer limits of human consciousness. Here, McBurney describes some key moments in the development of the show, from experiencing total sensory deprivation in a research laboratory in Watford, to his own encounter with the Mayoruna tribe in the Brazilian Amazon…

When making a piece of theatre I am, frequently, if not most of the time, in the dark. I truly do not know where we will end up.

—    We’re going to shut the door now and we’ll open it again in twenty minutes. Is that okay?
—    Yep, I guess.
—    Have you ever sat in total silence? In the dark?
—    I’ll be fine.

As a result of spending sixty-three days in silence on a Vipassana retreat, Yuval Noah Harari, the acclaimed author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, proclaimed it the ideal tool with which to scientifically observe his own mind. He came to realise he had no idea who he really was and that the fictional story in his head, and the connection between that and reality, was extremely tenuous.

—    Okay well… if you freak out then push this button and we’ll open the door.

Anechoic Chamber (c) Simon McBurney

Designer Michael Levine in BRE anechoic chamber. Photo by Simon McBurney

The vast door to the anechoic chamber, which is, as the name suggests, a room without echoes, at the Building Research Establishment (BRE) in Watford, closes definitively behind me.

The concrete walls are so thick no sound from the outside world enters your ear canals and the vast foam wedges that cover the walls absorb sound to such an extent that a clap becomes a tap.

I am in total darkness. And total silence. I don’t mean the silence of three in the morning at home, or even the silence of the remotest place on Earth, I mean total silence.

My breathing sounds like a set of bellows; my heartbeat like an arrhythmic drum machine.

—    Why am I here?

It is 40°C, my clothes are already sodden, although we have only been here an hour. Or have we? I’ve lost track of time and I have no battery on my phone. In fact I don’t know why I have a phone at all given there is no signal here.

We are sitting in the house of Lourival Mayoruna, the headman or Cacique of Marajaí, a village of Mayoruna people deep in the Brazilian Amazon, an hour’s flight west of Manaus and four hours by boat up the River Solimões.

Photo by Chloe Courtney

Lourival, according to local protocol, talks to us as part of our welcome into the village – and has been doing so for the best part of an hour. The hut is crammed with people and sitting between us all like some twenty-first-century totem is a binaural head, the microphone that records in, so called, ‘3D’.

Paul Heritage, head of People’s Palace Projects, who has lived for more than twenty years in Brazil, translates as Lourival winds down…

—    So you have come all this way and I have one question…

Lourival leans forward looking me in the eye.

—    Why are you here?

I nervously lick the wet salt off my upper lip, and sweat stings my eyes as everyone’s eyes turn towards me.

—    I think you need to reply, says Paul.

Binaural head in the Amazon Rainforest. Photo by Chloe Courtney

The sounds of the forest and the village become extremely loud all of a sudden. I clear my throat.

The slight rising panic makes me realise the noise I am now hearing is the sound of fluids circulating in my head. And there is a high-pitched hiss caused by spontaneous firings of the auditory nerve. How long have I been sitting here in darkness? I squeeze my phone. Five minutes. I thought it was at least half an hour.

—    Where are you going?
—    To work on my show…
—    What are you doing?
—    Um… sitting in a dark silent room in Watford.
—    Why?
—    To see what it’s like.

I look at my son. He is four. I’m not sure he buys this answer.

—    When is Christmas?
—    A long time. Several months. When it is winter, when it will be cold again.
—    It was cold today.
—    Yes, okay, but not very cold.
—    Yes it was. I was cold.
—    You’re right, it was cold.
—    How long is several months?

I mutter something about moons and loads of sleeps.

Maybe this high-pitched hiss generated by my auditory nerves is something more sinister. I should get my ears checked for tinnitus when I get out of here. How much longer?

—    Forty-five minutes.
—    What?
—    You’ve been speaking for forty-five minutes.
—    Good God.

I got it all, whispers Gareth my sound designer, who looks even more sodden than I do in the Amazonian heat, unplugging the totem.

Amazon 3 (c) Chloe Courtney

Lourival and Joaquina, Complicite’s hosts in Marajaí, listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

I look round the room. Silence. I am not sure how it has gone down. In English, the word ‘rehearsal’ derives from ‘hearse’ which means to rake over. To prepare the ground. And one way for me to prepare has always been to perform or improvise a show I am making to those who have never heard it. Because the story is not the show. It is not even the performance that is the show. The show is made in the minds of the audience. I want to know what they see. What they hear. I look at Lourival. He smiles.

INSIDE COVER IMAGE (c) Chloe Courtney

A girl from the Mayoruna community listening to the binaural head. Photo by Chloe Courtney

—    We are moved by your story, he says. Your story about this man who was lost, but who survived. Your story is about many people, but it is also about us, the Mayoruna. And it tells us that others in this world know of the Mayoruna people. You tell the world that we have survived. Many have perished. We have survived. But whether we will all survive… that is another matter.

He laughs.

—    So is it funny?
—    What?
—    Your performance.

My son examines me. I glance at him sideways. Draw in my breath.

Production shot 7 (c) Robbie Jack

Simon McBurney. Photo by Robbie Jack

The door suddenly creaks open and I am out in the Watford sunlight again, blinking. What greets me I don’t expect. It shocks me. It is a roar. So loud I want to block my ears. Traffic, voices, machinery, planes… industrial, all-encompassing, unstoppable. The shock is that most of the time, I do not hear it because our auditory system blocks out our conscious mind. Our ears, without us asking, form a filter and help to create a ‘normal’ reality, but one in which we hear ‘selectively’. As with our ears, so it is with all our senses. Our eyes, our sense of smell, every way in which we perceive the world creates a gap between what is actually happening and the story we make of it. We only see what we want to see…

The technician looks at me enquiringly.

—    How was it?
—    Disorientating.
—    And how did that feel?
—    Familiar.

Schaubuehne am Lehniner Platz. F.I.N.D. 2015, Amazon Beaming: Work in Progress, Complicite, inspiriert von dem Roman »Amazon Beaming« von Petru Popescu, Performance und Regie: Simon McBurney.

The Encounter. Photo by Gianmarco Bresadola


Formatted

The above article appears in the playtext of The Encounter published by Nick Hern Books, along with 32 pages of essays and colour photographs.

The playtext is available now. To buy your copy for just £7 – that’s 30% off the rrp of £9.99 – use the code ENCOUNTER when ordering through the NHB website here. This offer is valid until 31 March 2016.

The Encounter is at the Barbican, London, until 6 March, then touring.

Author photo at the top of this page by Robbie Jack.


THE ENCOUNTER: LIVE STREAM

The Encounter was live streamed from the Barbican on Tuesday 1 March. This video is no longer available.

‘Dare to fashion yourself’: Diane Samuels on her new play Poppy + George

Samuels, Diane3Diane Samuels, author of the powerful modern classic Kindertransport, set out to write a new play about female pirates… and ended up with a beguiling romance about cross-dressing and music hall. Poppy + George, which opened at Watford Palace Theatre this month, is all about identity, she explains – do we let ourselves be shaped by the assumptions of others, or do we choose to fashion ourselves?

Poppy + George, my new play, opened earlier this month at Watford Palace Theatre in a beautiful production with costumes and design by Ruari Murchison and original music by Gwyneth Herbert. It was a wonderful night, with a sense of well-earned satisfaction at the realisation of much hard work and leaps of the imagination, and not a little courage, all the more satisfying because its journey to this moment has turned out to be as unexpected and regenerative as the story of reinvention it tells.

It started in the early 1990s when I was writer-in-residence at Theatre Centre, researching the lives, loves, adventures and misdeeds of women pirates of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What compelled me most was the significant part their choice of dress played in creating their identity and expressing their ‘free’ lifestyles. This led me to look more closely at ways in which people, women in particular, across the centuries have dressed or been dressed to delineate their roles.

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Poppy + George at Watford Palace Theatre. Photo by Richard Lakos

I found myself, by twists and turns, ending up in 1919, the year after the conclusion of the First World War. This was a time of great change, shifting of national boundaries, loosening of class structures and stirring of gender distinctions – corsets were becoming shorter and less rigid before they started to disappear completely in the 1920s; hems were shortening; and trousers, although still almost exclusively male attire, had been donned here and there, women wearing them while covering men’s jobs during the war years. In the play, Smith – tailor and costumier, born a Jew in Russia and then trained in his craft in the Imperial court in China, in whose workshop in London’s East End the action takes place – asks the young heroine, Poppy, ‘Are you the dummy or the tailor?’ She is affronted and replies, ‘How am I a dummy?’ To which he responds, ‘Either you are fashioned by what you’re told or think you’re told you can be… or you dare to fashion yourself.’

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Photo by Richard Lakos

After running research sessions around the country looking at how we are fashioned and might fashion ourselves – including one in which a 16-year-old boy asked nervously if he might try on a wedding dress and did so with glee and amazement after we closed the doors and drew the curtains – I wrote a one-act play entitled Turncoat. An extensive tour took Smith’s magical workshop, where clothes and identities are created, into a wide range of venues including school halls, community centres and theatres throughout England and Wales.

In 2015, Brigid Larmour, Artistic Director at Watford Palace Theatre, asked if she might read a selection of my plays with a view to producing one. Turncoat leapt out at her as particularly relevant today, even more so than when it had first been written. I was invited to look afresh and write a new full-length play, developed from the earlier version.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The Palace had started life at the beginning of the twentieth century as a music hall, so I was excited to develop further the theatricality of the piece, adding to the songs, pastiches of music hall ditties, that are sung by the character Tommy Johns, a performer and female impersonator in that hugely popular tradition of ‘dames’ and drag. Underlying his humour is a sense of devastation, for Tommy has returned from a round of duty at the Front during the war, and he is struggling to revive his act and his life in this time of ‘so-called peace’. We meet him at the beginning of the play searching for a name for his latest creation, a maid with “‘er fluffy duster in ‘er ‘and”, encouraged by Smith, who is constructing his costume, and dashing chauffeur George Sampson, who has his uniforms made at the workshop.

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Photo by Richard Lakos

The names people go by are central to the piece, and so I wasn’t surprised when I was asked to find a new title for the play. ‘Poppy + George’ popped into my head immediately. This meant also changing the name of the heroine from Melody to Poppy, a young woman from the north of England who arrives in London with an open, curious mind and a desire to make her way independently in the world. She becomes a seamstress and assistant to Smith and falls in love with George, which leads to her whole world being turned upside down. And so the symbolism of the poppy, with its associations with transformation and dreams (it was not selected as a symbol of memorial for the fallen in the war until 1921, two years after the play is set), has unfolded powerfully throughout the re-writing process, particularly the way the seeds lie dormant in the soil, perhaps even for centuries, and only spring into life and bloom when the earth is churned up and disrupted.

In the few days since the play has opened, it has been heart-warming to receive so many messages of appreciation. One reviewer described it as ‘winningly generous and big-hearted’, with many seeing the modern relevance of this threshold moment nearly a century ago. As Brigid Larmour wrote, ‘Diane has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist debates about gender and identity, in a way that is wonderfully warm and accessible to a wider audience. The music hall element works really well, and is incredibly playful, and the play seems to be leaving people very moved as well as entertained.’


Tamara von WerthernFrom our Performing Rights Manager, Tamara von Werthern…

We’re very excited to have Poppy + George on our list, and it’s sure to be hugely popular with amateur theatre groups. It offers two wonderful, fully-rounded central roles for women, it’s funny, it’s moving and it’s full of charm and atmosphere. Anyone who has enjoyed staging Diane’s brilliant Kindertransport  – or Jessica Swale’s Blue Stockings, or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby – should certainly give Poppy + George a twirl.

To register your interest, drop me a line at tamara@nickhernbooks.co.uk, or call me on 020 8749 4953.


FormattedPoppy + George is at Watford Palace Theatre until Saturday 27 February.

The playtext is out now, published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (20% discount) plus p&p, visit the NHB website here.