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Katharine Quarmby: on text and puppets

February 23, 2010

On text and puppetry


Transforming a story of just 700 words into a 40 minute show always seemed baffling as a thought. But the sketch is there, and to be performed tonight at the Little Angel Theatre, almost exactly a year since I first mentioned the idea to an old university friend, Caroline, who happened to be a very talented puppeteer.

Fussy Freya, my first picture book, was published almost two years ago – it has elements of the cautionary tale in it, but is, at bottom, the story of a loving family which gets into a little difficulty when one child refuses to eat. It’s the story about how children use food as a weapon in order to get what they want when things don’t go right for them in a family – for Freya, it’s the moment when she realises her baby brother isn’t going to go away and when she fears that he is going to replace her. So she stops eating – and her rather over-dramatic mum and dad panic – and send her away to her grandparents – where she is taught a fantastical lesson – and order is restored.

So how do you take a story, in verse, and transform it into a completely different medium? 

It’s already gone through several incarnations – a humourous take on a kitchen sink drama, with washing on a line, a gentle, magical food fantasy, a grotesque cautionary tale. Now, after a week of hard work at a residency,  in the safe hands of the Little Angel’s artistic director, Peter Glanville,  it’s different again – as if we’ve pared the story down to the bare essentials. Who is Freya? What’s her relationships with her mum? Could mum and dad have handled the arrival of baby Ravi better? Slowly, with many conversations, but also through seeing the emergence of Freya on stage, it’s coming into focus. I’ve known Caroline since I saw her on stage at Cambridge, when we were both students, and she was one of the three sisters in Chekov. She’s a wonderful actor, and she has recreated Freya in puppet form, and, in doing so, has inhabited her. When Caroline manipulates Freya’s head, you feel it’s Freya, when her hands move, it’s because Freya is alive, through Caroline. And of course, with the wonderful music of Tom Green, yet another layer has been added.

Freya is my other daughter, my third child, and so I argue on her behalf. We discussed whether the show should open with Freya on her own, eating, and I felt really strongly that wasn’t true to the essence of Freya and her family. I think the old saying “a family that eats together, stays together” is pretty true. So Freya lives in paradise – until a stranger – her brother – disturbs it and disrupts her universe. That feels right. But things could change, of course, that’s the essence of creating work in a group – it belongs to all of us now. I may have written the text, but what happens now is a complex interaction between all five of us – and the puppets, Freya and Ravi as well.

But the revelation I wasn’t expecting was the development of grandma Clare. Already, in the hands of the wonderful illustrator, Piet Grobler, who drew Fussy Freya, she had already become a most entertaining and wonderful character, but Claire Harrison Bullet has transformed her. I feel I understand Grandma Clare, the hippy chick from the 1960’s’ who can’t quite believe she’s a grandma and certainly isn’t ready to stop having fun. Once seen, she is an unforgettable presence. I look forward to seeing my mother meet her alter ego, Grandma Clare, and my father meet Grandpa, dressed as a chef, ready to serve Freya a feast she will never forget.

And the most wonderful thing, for me, at the risk of sounding soppy, is the love in the show. All the frustrations of family life are there – the wasted food, the panicky glasses of wine, the despairing phone calls from mum to gran, but so, too, are the rewards – love, affection and cuddles.


One Comment leave one →
  1. February 26, 2010 12:49 pm

    I really enjoyed this piece, Katharine. I used to write for the theatre and have had similar experiences of having something you’ve written being transformed as the actors, sound, sets etc. all have an input. It always felt like a sort of magic to me.

    I’m glad that you enjoyed this rather special process, too.

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