Olivia Jacobs, co-founder of Tall Stories, tells Francine Wolfisz she could never have predicted the success of The Gruffalo on stage..
For many nights seemingly without end in my household, the same frightening tale was told: Of a monster, who lived in a deep dark wood, with orange eyes, a black tongue and purple prickles all over his back. And to top it off, he had terrible claws, with terrible teeth in his terrible jaws.
You’d be forgiven for thinking such a story might cause nightmares, but my little girl couldn’t get enough of The Gruffalo. She has since moved on to the likes of Disney princesses but, fear not, the big-hearted monster still has a place in her heart – and the many others who have bought some 13 million copies of this children’s bestseller by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler around the world.
The Gruffalo is also roaring his way back to the West End next week for a limited run, thanks to theatre company Tall Stories, which first staged a musical adaptation of the book 15 years ago.
Olivia Jacobs, who co-founded the company with Toby Mitchell, saw potential in the story back in 1999, a time when The Gruffalo and its author were still both relatively unknown.
“Toby and I read the book and just loved it. I remember approaching Julia at the time and she said: ‘How brilliant. Somebody wants to adapt one of my books!’
“Then while we were in rehearsal, we heard the book had won the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize and I thought that was great, because it might encourage people to buy it. We just couldn’t predict the sort of success it would achieve. “We are really pleased the story we thought was good other people thought was good as well.”
When they first started out, Jacobs admits that despite the book’s growing success, she was unsure just how popular her musical adaptation would prove and was “terrified in the wings” when Donaldson took her seat in the audience.
The married mum-of-two, who is returning to direct The Gruffalo, tells me: “We made the show because we loved the story, but we anticipated that it would do a short tour before going into schools.
“We were a young company and things were just starting for us, but we had no indication of how The Gruffalo might fare.
“Our first show was at Chester Gateway Theatre and it wasn’t great – I think I hid under the lighting desk for quite a lot of it!”
In truth, Tall Stories had a very promising future ahead. The Gruffalo proved a massive hit for the company and has now toured for 15 years around the world, including twice at the Sydney Opera House, twice on Broadway and seven times in the West End.
Last year alone, more than 200,000 people enjoyed the classic tale about a little mouse who concocts the story of a fictitious monster – only to discover it is real.
The success of The Gruffalo also helped a working relationship to develop between Tall Stories and Donaldson and they have since collaborated again to adapt The Gruffalo’s Child, Room On The Broom and The Snail And The Whale.
Jacobs, who trained at the Central School of Speech and Drama, says of the beloved children’s author: “She is very open to ideas and always very willing to listen, but she also has her eye quite firmly on her work.
“Julia is very wise and has a good eye for quality. In the case of The Snail And The Whale, this is one of her favourite stories and she was nervous about us framing it with another story about a girl and her father – and understandably so.
“But she was very clear about what she wanted and in the end she was extremely happy with the result. The nice thing is that she’s open enough to new ideas and suggestions.”
Of her latest West End run, Jacobs tells me audiences can expect “an all-new look Gruffalo” with redesigned costumes, a revamped set and reworked sections of the show.
The cast includes Owen Guerin as the Gruffalo, whom Jacobs describes as “a natural-born bumbling monster”, Ellie Bell as Mouse and Timothy Richey in the guise of the Predators.
With The Gruffalo set to again charm its audiences, young and old, I ask Jacobs why this tale is ever popular?
“It just has that feel of a timeless classic,” she explains. “The Gruffalo is a story about a little guy, who uses his brains instead of his brawn, to win through. That’s a lovely message to convey to your child, whatever time of the year.”
•The Gruffalo arrives from 15 December to 3 January at Vaudeville Theatre, The Strand, London. Details: www.nimaxtheatres.com or 0330 333 4814.