Monday, 2 October 2017

PAGE TO STAGE, Zeraffa Giraffa – Dianne Hofmeyr

André Refig helps Zeraffa onto a felucca in Khartoum – photo Ellie Kurttz
It’s been a long journey… that frisson of excitement when a theatre contacts you and says – there’s a story in this picture book perfect for adaptation… that smile that can’t be knocked off your face for days to come!

Then the first discussion in the lovely front of house bar café that is part of Omnibus Theatre that smells of good coffee with plush old sofas and a cat that twines its way between your legs and then falls asleep between some props. It seems perfect that my story has found a home in this beautiful old building that still has the letters Clapham Library in stone across its portals.

There’s much excitement as Artistic Director, Marie McCarthy, and Senior Producer, Felicity Paterson, explain how they see it… how shadow and puppets will evoke Africa, how they will introduce humour but at the same time plumb what the story has essentially to offer – strangers finding a home in a strange land.

It all sounds great. My head swims with visuals. But there’s a tiny loophole. For the green light, finance is needed. Actors, scriptwriters, directors, puppet designers, composers of soundtracks, lighting experts, set and costume designers and sound engineers all need to be paid. Nothing can proceed until there are funds.

Omnibus Theatre is an independent London theatre, with no source of guaranteed funding. Their audience spreads out from Clapham to include Balham, Battersea, Brixton, Putney, Streatham, Wandsworth and way beyond... but funds are dependent on box office sales and hires.

I wait for news. A year passes. Then a phone-call. An anonymous donor concerned by the plight of refugees has given support for the underlying message of the play. The reach is extended by the Little Angel Theatre in Islington coming on board and stepping up to co-produce. Doors open. The Arts Council England gives some funding. The play Zeraffa Giraffa becomes a reality – the giraffe starts another journey, a true North South crossing of London. Hooray!!!

Sabrina Mahfouz is asked to write the script ­– a perfect choice, born in Egypt and living in London, with an understanding of issues relating to the immigrant experience, she taps into the authentic voice and brings Arabic and French into the story. And Elgiva Field with her huge energy levels and vast knowledge of planning theatrical events in abandoned mansions and festivals like Latitude, comes in as Director. Then maestro designer and director of puppets in the shape of Matthew Hutchinson is called in. So meticulous is he that he studies the giraffe's anatomy and the affect different tendons have on its walking pattern. Then the talented set designer Ingrid Hu works her magic into the story and Candida Caldicott creates a soundtrack. And so the play is born.

My first view is in a rehearsal room. There’s so much to take in – the dynamics, the movement, the strong voices, the device of scale to portray such a vast journey. Rehearsals go on then a break for summer. A change of cast. Will this play ever happen? Then a date is ringed. It's my first proper viewing at the Little Angel. I step into the dark theatre to the sharp sound of cicadas. I’m totally submerged in Africa. I even smell the dust. Suddenly I’m very emotional. In a bright circle of light in the centre of a dark empty stage stands a small gathering of three giraffes. The baby one is there too.
There’s nothing more to say. Except that I'm totally transported. It's no longer my story but one that's brought to life by three people – Ashton Owen, Nadia Shash and André Refig, who for just under an hour hold an audience of children and parents in the cups of their hands. There is a fourth actor too that steps onto the stage with all the hesitancy and curiosity that I've seen in any baby giraffe on the wild plains of the African savannah. Totally and utterly convincing.

It’s easy to understand why the people of France fell in love with this creature.
Ashton Owen with the little giraffe
Nadia Shash & Ashton Owen with adult Zeraffa in Paris – photo Ellie Kurttz 
Zeraffa Giraffa based on the book by Dianne Hofmeyr and Jane Ray, published by Frances Lincoln, is presently on at the Little Angel Theatre in Islington for until 5th Nov and then moves to the Omnibus Theatre in Clapham on 25th Nov until 17th December. It’s suitable for 4 -10 year olds and perfect for school visits.

Jane Ray backstage with Matthew Hutchinson 
Dianne Hofmeyr's latest picture book The Glassmaker's Daughter, illustrated by Jane Ray and published by Frances Lincoln, is out now.  Jane Ray has recently been nominated for the IBBY Hans Christian Andersen Award. 
Twitter: @dihofmeyr

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