The West End and other mainstream theatres are opening up to younger and younger audiences driven by a wave of adaptation of classic children’s books. Whether it’s the likes of Gangsta Granny, The Gruffalo, or The Tiger Who Came To Tea, children are being brought into the country’s top theatres in droves, and intelligent adaptations of favourite children’s books seems to be the key. In this vein, this summer the Lyric Theatre at the heart of London’s West End is hosting a production of Julia Donaldson and Lydia Monk’s bestseller What the Ladybird Heard. Sharing the stage with Thriller, which shows on same stage every evening, the theatre is transformed into a farm and as we walk in Lily (Emma Carroll) sits centre stage reading the book. Since its first outing in 2014 the show has undergone some serious development and is now at its absolute best.
This production demonstrates storytelling for young children at its finest. Lily and the Farmer begin to tell the tale after drafting in the help of the immensely talented Matt Jopling as the unwitting Raymond who is dragged out of the audience (many a dad sighed in relief). Raymond is pulled in to play the character of Lanky Len who along with Hefty Hugh attempt to burgle the Farmer of his prize cow. The cast with the aid of the children in the audience create all of the animals on the farm including the woolly sheep, the hairy hog, the fat red hen and the dainty dog. There are also puppets either side with the two cats (one who meowed and one who purred) and the prize cow in question coming to life on the stage.
Pacing in children’s theatre is absolutely crucial, get it wrong and you could be faced with a room of toddlers in revolt. To steer clear of this, What the Ladybird Heard moves swiftly into the action using the perfect blend of child participation, songs, and puppetry. Coming in at just shy of an hour the production is captivating for toddlers and young children. Hefty Hugh and Lanky Len are very cleverly modelled on the bumbling burgling duo from Home Alone and provide some real fun to the production to their ill thought out antics, and they are firm favourites with the younger audience members eliciting some heartfelt boos.
There is a developing trend of book adaption for children’s theatre and there is a reason behind it being such a popular trend over the creation of original work. This is certainly not a new phenomenon, just look at the endless adaptations of Peter Pan, but there has been a real move in the last decade to adapt contemporary texts. Children become extremely involved with their favourite stories and there is a certain type of magic in seeing them brought to life on the stage. From a production point of view it also makes sense to go with a story that has proven success with children: often award-winning plots are easily adapted and it offers the groundwork for any reinterpretation. The ways in which picture books are adapted are particularly interesting when contrasting with the textual counterparts read by older children, as it is the aesthetic as much as the words and story that seem to be crucial to a successful production. There are also greater challenges in this type of adaptation as there is often little to work with but this also provides a space for greater creativity to enhance the story. This is done wonderfully in What the Ladybird Heard through the framing narrative of Lily who tells the story.
From a marketing point of view it is also a much easier sell a play to parents who know it is from a book with which their children are familiar and enjoy and some members of the industry have branded such productions as “cash cows”. I would hasten to argue a defence that adaptation is in no way “the lazy option” and that combining the influx of page to stage productions, particularly for younger children with original productions can only be a positive. While there is the threat to developing original theatre works for children productions like What the Ladybird Heard are crucial in bringing younger audiences into theatres and ensuring their first experiences are positive, and hopefully inspire a love of theatre for the rest of their lives. As an adult it is always hard to judge children’s theatre in terms of what the exact perspective of a child is, but if the smiling faces on the way out were anything to go by this production was a huge success.
What the Ladybird Heard is showing at the Lyric Theatre until 10th September 2017. For more information and tickets, see here.
 Raven Snook, “Page to Stage: Turning Children’s Books into Theater Productions”, Publishers Weekly 5th April 2013. https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/childrens/childrens-book-news/article/56695-page-to-stage-turning-children-s-books-into-theater-productions.html
 Kate Youde, “Child’s Play: A boom in British theatre”, The Independent 9th October 2010. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/childs-play-a-boom-in-british-theatre-2102583.html