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The Snail and the Whale starts this week at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Toby Mitchell, joint artistic director of theatre company Tall Stories, answered some questions ahead of the first night of The Snail and the Whale, a children's play which starts its run at the Cambridge Arts Theatre this Wednesday (July 28).

The Snail and the Whale children's play
The Snail and the Whale children's play

Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about the history and driving purpose of Tall Stories? And has that changed much in the 20+ years since the company first formed?

Our purpose for many years has been to bring great stories to life for audiences of all ages. Olivia Jacobs and I co-founded the company in 1997 to take two shows based on books we loved to the Edinburgh Fringe - one was adapted from Alice in Wonderland and the other from Oscar Wilde’s short stories.

The shows weren’t aimed at family audiences but some parents brought their kids and said how great it was to find shows which didn’t talk down to children. That’s been our aim with our family shows ever since. And although we’re best known for our adaptations of picture books, we do shows for older children and grown-ups too.

Tall Stories is a leader in adapting children's books for the stage. Does that reputation come with a certain degree of pressure?

It comes with huge pressure - “you’re only as good as your last show!” But we have a really talented pool of collaborators - designers, composers, performers, etc - who help us to make each new show as good as it can be. We also hope that people who come and see our picture book adaptations might return and see one of our lesser-known shows too.

If pushed, how would you describe The Snail and the Whale in three words?

“Imaginative, funny, touching.” Or “faultless family fare” - as the WhatsOnStage review put it!

The production is nearly 10 years old now. Has it changed much over the years?

The show evolves with each new cast. Over the years, we’ve changed lines, added lines, changed moves, added pieces of set... But it’s still the same basic structure and feel, with the audience seeing the story through the eyes of an adventurous young girl and her seafaring dad.

The Snail and the Whale children's play
The Snail and the Whale children's play

I love the incorporation of live folk music into the storytelling. What made you decide to include this?

It was actually Julia Donaldson’s idea! When we asked her back in 2011 if we could adapt her book (having adapted three of her books already), she suggested that for a change we have live music instead of recorded music.

I then thought back to the first professional production I had worked on, as an assistant director. It was set in a lighthouse and all the music and sound effects - including storms and seagulls - were created by a viola player with a delay pedal. I tracked down the composer of that show - Richard Heacock - and invited him to work on this new show.

How has the last year been for you as a company? And is this current tour your first time back on stage in some time?

It’s been sad and frustrating - as it has for everyone. We had loads of ideas for projects that were never able to happen - along with some that did. The Gruffalo was actually our first show back on stage this year, with some outdoor drive-in performances - and The Snail and the Whale followed closely behind. It is just great to be back in theatres.

The Snail and the Whale children's play
The Snail and the Whale children's play

Were you able to engage with young audiences at all over the lockdown? If so, can you tell us about any initiatives you ran?

We did livestreams of The Snail and the Whale in October and of The Gruffalo in December, both of which went well and had lovely reactions from audiences. And then from January to March this year we commissioned company members to tell some short stories online. Again, we got some great feedback, but there’s nothing like live storytelling in a venue!

How important is it for children to have access to live theatre, especially in our current times?

Children should have access to all sorts of live experiences - music, theatre, galleries, museums, parks, crazy golf... The more we show them exciting alternatives to ever-present and tempting screens and devices, the better.

What do you hope audiences take away from seeing the show?

A great story, well told! I hope audiences will leave having had fun and having really enjoyed the live experience.

The Snail and the Whale children's play
The Snail and the Whale children's play

Lastly, do you have any future book-to-stage adaptations in the pipeline which you can tell us about?

Our next show is a return to Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, having not adapted a show by them since Snail ten years ago. We’re premiering The Smeds and the Smoos at the Rose Theatre in Kingston in October this year, followed by a national tour. It’s a brilliant story - think Romeo and Juliet with aliens and a happy ending!

The Snail and the Whale runs until Sunday (August 1). For more information, and to book tickets, visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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