David Wood has written more than 70 plays for children which have been performed worldwide, and he has been dubbed ‘the national children’s dramatist.’
And he has adapted numerous classics for the stage – his adaptation of Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mister Tom won an Olivier Award, plus he has done the honours for eight of Roald Dahl’s books, as well as Eric Hill’s Spot’s Birthday Party for younger children.
But it never occurred to him to tackle his daughters’ favourite childhood book – The Tiger Who Came To Tea.
It was only a chance meeting with its author Judith Kerr at Buckingham Palace, of all places, which put the wheels in motion.
As he recalls: ‘In 2006, I wrote the play that was part of the Children’s Party at The Palace for the Queen’s 80th birthday and they had a celebratory day based around children’s British literature. I was asked to write a play which was put on a stage in the Buckingham Palace gardens. The idea was that all of the iconic characters of British children’s literature, I was allowed to put them in one story, which was very exciting – except there were very occasional copyright problems.
‘It was put out live on BBC1 and got 8m viewers.
‘That day there was a reception for children’s writers, and I was asked if I would sort of welcome people in because I knew a lot of them. At one point I noticed an elderly lady who I didn’t know, I asked someone who it was and they said Judith Kerr.
‘I immediately went over, almost on one knee to tell her she wrote my daughters’ favourite book.’
It transpired David had appeared in a play by her husband, the great TV screenwriter Nigel Kneale, some 30 years earlier. Judith invited David to come visit him as he was ill. Sadly Nigel died weeks later before they could arrange to get together.
But David did meet up again with Judith a few months down the line, and it was her who mentioned a producer interested in staging Tiger, and put the two of them in touch.
‘So it wasn’t my idea, although I did know the book backwards!’ David says with a chuckle. ‘That was in about 2007, I started work and the show opened in 2008 and has been going ever since.
‘It’s been doing very well all this time and it’s a reflection on the fact that the book is so popular.
‘The cast changes every once in a while and you have a new tour starts off – they go abroad quite a lot - they’ve been to Sydney Opera House, China, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and all those places.
‘The book’s 51 years old now – we were in the West End last year for our 10th year and the book’s 50th.’
With such a well-loved story, David knows he has a duty of care to its legion of fans.
‘Nobody has written to me saying you’ve mucked up the book – the majority of people who have written letters to me and critics who’ve reviewed it have said how close it is to the book and it looks like the book, and they like that, they value that.
‘When I’ve adapted, I’ve always tried to be faithful to the book.
‘With children’s books there is a value in staying faithful to what I believe is the author’s intention, and that’s easier with a living writer because you can ask the odd question.’
And David is pleased that times have changed – earlier in his career, shows aimed at the very young were frowned upon (‘the lack of interval meant they couldn’t sell ice creams’) whereas it is now a big market.
‘Anything that encourages children to come to the theatre and enjoy the theatre so they might want to come again.’
The enduring success of shows like Tiger suggests to David that these books are still being well-read, even as reading for pleasure is squeezed out by the increasingly strict demands of school curriculums.
‘Tiger – and The Gruffalo is another one – they are stage shows created from books, rather than television shows, which is quite refreshing as it suggests the books are very much alive and well and that parents and teachers still believe in them.’
Given its well-travelled history, this actually marks the first time the show has come to Portsmouth.
‘I knew (former New Theatre Royal artistic director) Caroline Sharman from when she was at Chipping Norton, and we were trying to arrange for something of mine to come to Portsmouth several years ago – another show – but it never quite happened, so I’m glad it’s coming there.’
THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth