Not many people in 2003 would have thought that the tall, well-dressed individual on their TV screens shouting “Bitty!” at the top of his lungs would go on to be one of Britain’s most successful children’s authors. One suspects veteran actress Geraldine James has only recently recovered from the regular assaults on her cleavage. David Walliams has (at least for the moment) set aside his man-child impersonations, however, and taken to writing for actual kids – to great success. Now much-celebrated theatre company Les Petits Theatre adapts his wild 2014 picture book The First Hippo On The Moon touring theatres this winter and spring.
The reinvention of David Walliams has been something of a fairytale. The London-born comedian published his first book – The Boy In The Dress – back in 2008. The story of a young child learning to understand his parents’ divorce and a burgeoning desire to cross-dress, the touching adventure was illustrated by much-loved artist Quentin Blake and was adapted for a BBC television-film. Since then Walliams has published thirteen children’s books.
The First Hippo On The Moon, the writer-comedian’s second picture book, tells the story of Sheila, a hippo aiming to win the animal kingdom’s space race to the moon. Walliams drew inspiration for the idea from both his historical interest and his renowned anarchic imagination. “I have always been fascinated with the space race of the 1960s and wanted to do a spoof on that” the forty-five year old commented. “I like the idea of hippos going to the moon as they are the animals least likely to.”
The book’s voyage into the bizarre fits neatly alongside the work of its adaptors for the stage, Les Petits Theatre. Known for dramatic designs and immersive performances, the production company’s previous stage shows include an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and the wacky Captain Flynn and The Pirate Dinosaurs. Walliams chose the group especially for The First Hippo. “I have loved their work for many years so jumped at the chance to work with them. The book is full of humour and I know that they are the perfect choice of theatre company to bring that out as their shows are so irreverent and funny.”
The feeling was mutual. Writer for Les Petits Theatre Oliver Lansley noted, “We were really keen to work on one of David Walliams’ books as we feel we share the same anarchic sensibilities. He doesn’t patronise children which is very refreshing and he’s not afraid to be challenging or a bit dark.” Director and puppet-maker Finn Caldwell for the company added, “the story also lends itself to puppetry and lays out certain visual challenges that we were excited about solving in a theatre production.”
Walliams’ stories have always strived for the bright and colourful, The First Hippo illustrated by veteran artist Tony Ross. The book’s theatrical cousin is no less exotic. With two human-sized hippos, an ostrich, a gorilla, and a particularly large giraffe, this is an on-stage journey into the jungle as well as to the moon.
“Lots of our audience will come to see the show wanting to see and recognise characters from the book of The First Hippo on the Moon,” admitted Caldwell.
“We hope we’ve captured the flavour of Tony’s world and characters whilst at the same time throwing in a good pinch of natural anatomy and just a smidge of cartoon logic.” The production utilises both costumed actors (including Dominic Allen and Rosie Nicholls) and “contact” puppets. This style of theatrical puppetry has been used by the likes of hit-show Warhorse and has the performers in close contact with the shapes they manipulate, creating fluid, energetic movement.
Walliams described the show’s message as one of optimism and cooperation. “Whoever you are you should dream big, just like Sheila the hippo. Plus if you work together as a team, then you can achieve so much more.” The actor also had advice for any looking to follow in his footsteps and become a writer. “I think it’s important you write a story you would like to read. If you like funny stories write a funny story, if you like scary ones write a scary one. You can never guess what it is people want to read, so it is best you write something for yourself.”
The First Hippo‘s protagonist Sheila may have gone to the moon. Walliams’ dreams, however, go even further. He joked in closing the interview, “I would like to go to Mars. You can forget the books and the comedy shows: I feel I would definitely be remembered if I was the first person to go there!”
The First Hippo On the Moon: Interview With David Walliams
He has taken the literary world by storm, with his children’s books selling over 9.5 million copies in the UK alone.
And now, a story from popular television personality David Walliams will be performed on stage at the Marina Theatre in Lowestoft.
The First Hippo on the Moon has been adapted for the stage by acclaimed award winning Theatre company Les Petits and features puppetry, music, mayhem and a giant space race to the moon!
Based on David Walliams’ original children’s book with illustrations by Tony Ross, The First Hippo on the Moon is an explosively funny space adventure which sees the enormously rich Hercules Waldorf-Franklin III and ingenious Shelia compete to be the first hippo to make it to the moon.
David Walliams has achieved unprecedented critical acclaim for his story writing and quickly developed a reputation as a natural successor to Roald Dahl.
Tell us about the history of The First Hippo on the Moon and where the idea for the book came from.
I have always been fascinated with the space race of the 1960s and wanted to do a spoof on that. I like the idea of hippos going to the moon as they are the animals least likely to. It’s a very visual book, with amazing illustrations by Tony Ross, so it should be a very colourful stage production.
What drew you to working with Les Petits Theatre Company / Les Enfants Terribles for this project? Had you seen any of their work previously?
I have loved their work for many years so jumped at the chance to work with them. I love great children’s theatre shows, especially now I am a father, so am very excited to see this one. The book is full of humour and I know that is the perfect choice of theatre company to bring that out as there shows are so irreverent and funny. The best shows for children work for the grown-ups too, and I am sure this one will.
This isn’t the first stage adaptation of your work, how does it feel seeing your characters come to life in the theatre?
I love seeing adaptations of my books, and really enjoy the changes. I come from writing for television which is very collaborative and has always like working with other people. Ultimately you feel like a magician when something that was in your head becomes real.
If families were to take one message away from The First Hippo on the Moon then what would it be?
That whoever you are you should dream big, just like Sheila the hippo. Plus if you work together as a team, then you can achieve so much more.
Are you inspired by any other current children’s writers? Which ones did you love reading as a child?
There are so many great writers for children right now. My personal favourites right now are JK Rowling, Julia Donaldson, Dame Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo. When I a young child I loved Richard Scarry and Dr Seuss.
My absolute hero is Roald Dahl. He is the greatest children’s writer of all time as he wrote so many brilliant books. I tend to be influenced by everything good I read, though it is pointless trying to copy anybody.
If after seeing or reading The First Hippo on the Moon, young writers were inspired to pick up a pen to create their own story, what advice would you give them?
I think it’s important you write a story you would like to read. If you like funny stories write a funny story, if you like scary ones write a scary one. You can never guess what it is people want to read, so it is best you write something for yourself. If other people like it that’s a bonus.
And finally – If, like Shelia, you could build a hippo-po-rocket and go anywhere in space where would it be and why?
I would like to go to Mars. You can forget the books and the comedy shows I feel I would definitely be remembered if I was the first person to go there!
The First Hippo on the Moon Live on Stage will be in Singapore this coming September 2017 at SOTA Drama Theatre. Book at tickets at www.sistic.com or find out more about the show at The First Hippo On The Moon.
GIVEAWAY ALERT: We are giving away tickets to the show, take part via The First Hippo On The Moon Tickets Giveaway.