The Grand Theatre’s new season launch took place last week and among the creatives of shows visiting the town was Puppetry Director Matthew Forbes. Matt was in town this time last year working on a new version of a Punch & Judy show for annual family-favourite Showzam Festival and he jumped at the chance to return to Blackpool to promote Polka Theatre’s new touring production of Babe The Sheep Pig which arrives here in July.
I caught up with him to talk about how things were going…
Babe was originally a children’s novel, written by Dick King-Smith in 1983, it was adapted into the internationally successful film Babe in 1995, with creature effects by Jim Henson’s workshop and subsequently developed for stage by children’s playwright David Wood OBE so there is a strong history of family audiences that have connected with the story.
This version has been directed by another Blackpool-phile Michael Fentiman and been co-produced with Polka by Tom O’Connell Productions and Limelight Productions. Matthew came on board with the production last summer for an initial R&D week, and has since, been working with the other creatives to tweak, before rehearsals started last September.
The show is playing at Polka Theatre in London until the beginning of February when it embarks on a 7-month tour, taking in some much larger venues than the original home including Blackpool Grand. Matthew and Michael will work together to upscale the show but after that it will stay the same show for the rest of the tour.
When asked about the challenges of this task, Matthew responded:
“Story wise, the play is very strong. At its heart is this lovely tale about a brave little pig who overcomes adversity and that draws everyone in, but then we use these gorgeously designed puppets where the detail is so fine, it just pulls the audience in even further.
When you use puppets – you’re asking the audience to suspend their disbelief beyond even what is normally expected in theatre; you’re asking them to invest in the theatre process and that world of imagination. We wanted everything to have that heightened sense of reality, an other-worldly quality so even the human characters are half human/half puppets. The puppets are not an add on, everything is different and that ensures that children are on the edge of their seats throughout.
The movie is so well known; the hope is that those, like me, who grew up with the film will bring their children – it’s for families but there are dark themes in it. The writer, David Wood doesn’t shy away from the darkness but children enjoy that. There’s a character called the ‘worrier dog’ and during previews we were ourselves worried that it was too scary for children, but they love it – that’s the scene that all the children are talking about and remember at the end of the show.
I think the original stage show of this was done with a cast of around twenty, we have just eight actors but they all come from a wide background of training and professional experience. We’ve got performers from War Horse, Lion King, Sister Act, to name just a few. It’s been a really collaborative process where everybody does everything; everybody has been involved in the process of problem-solving and that diversity of skills comes in so handy. For example, within the show, there are two Babe puppets which are operated slightly differently; one can be operated single-handedly, the other is a more traditional Bunraku puppet, operated by a group of puppeteers. We needed to work out a way of swapping between the two without letting audience know. We had to use some very clever choreography to ensure that that it wasn’t in any way confusing for audiences. Another time someone might say “Let’s shove a high kick in here!” and that works too.
The music has been created by the company so that all feels very fresh and very inspiring for young people, we know that the Grand Theatre has great relationships with local schools and amazing returning rates for schools audiences and we hope to be able to offer a lovely education package around the show to support some of their learning around skills such as puppetry too.
Blackpool is such a family-orientated place and so Babe will be perfect for the town – I’m sure young and old audiences alike will have a great time with the show and I can’t wait to come back to Blackpool again!”
Babe, The Sheep Pig is at Blackpool Grand Theatre Thursday 6 – Sunday 9 July 2017 with a variety of starting times from 10am to 7pm. Tickets start at £11.50. Book online call 01253 290190 or email [email protected]
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