The space race is on in Les Petits’ adaptation of David Walliam’s The First Hippo on the Moon.
David Walliams is not the first small-screen star to exploit their celebrity status to flog a few books. The difference in the case of the Little Britain star, however, is he’s very good at it. The reason his junior market has lapped up the dozen or so novels plus the handful of picture books he’s turned out since 2008’s The Boy in the Dress is because they’re a great read. How else to account for sales in excess of 12.5 million and translation into 46 languages?
“The thing that attracted us to his work was the irreverence,” says Oliver Lansley, artistic director of Les Petits and adaptor of The First Hippo on the Moon, published by Walliams in 2016. “There’s a level of mischief and fun to it that was missing from a lot of children’s literature for a while. That’s why kids love it so much.”
Happily, the feeling was mutual. “I have loved their work for many years so jumped at the chance to work with them,” says Walliams. “The book is full of humour and I know they are the perfect choice of theatre company to bring that out as their shows are so irreverent and funny.”
But there’s no guarantee a story that’s worked well as a picture book will transfer smoothly to the stage. Lansley’s first job was to consider how to translate the silly-but-brief story of a hippo-based space race into an hour-long show.
“There are pros and cons,” says the playwright. “In the whole book there are very few words, but the plus side is it liberates you to create your own thing.”
As with any adaptation, it’s a question of capturing the essence of the original without feeling restrained by having to be faithful: “You’re trying to keep the spirit of it, the characters and the main themes but also you’re not beholden to text as you are with longer books. With a picture book, immediately you’re working with a visual language and it allows you a springboard to jump off and make big, bold decisions.”
And big, bold decisions are what this story cries out for. “I have always been fascinated with the space race of the 1960s and wanted to do a spoof on that,” says Walliams. “I like the idea of hippos going to the moon as they are the animals least likely to.”
He was all for encouraging the company’s creative freedom and understood the play had to work on its own terms. Working with director Finn Caldwell and puppet designer Nick Barnes, Lansley set about giving theatrical form to Sheila, the hippo with a lunar ambition, and Hercules Waldorf-Franklin III, her big-bucks rival with his custom-built Hippo Space Centre.
“The idea of doing a show with a cast entirely made up of puppets seemed like a fun idea,” he says, describing the life-size hippo costume, a giraffe so tall it bangs its head off the ceiling, not to mention a gorilla who just can’t stay awake. “We love big, bold, visual theatre and this gave us the opportunity to create an entire world on stage.”
WORDS: Mark Fisher
PHOTO: The Other Richard & David Parry
WHERE & WHEN
David Walliams’ The First Hippo on the Moon, Pleasance Courtyard, 2–20 August (not 15), 12pm
From £9.50, Tel: 0131 556 6550