1983 - 2013

Staging children's stories at the National Theatre

National Theatre

Productions from the National Theatre Archive 

'The country desperately needs a repertory of children's plays. It should be the National Theatre's duty to try to provide this' 

Peter Hall, 1973

(Policy Thoughts for the New South Bank, National Theatre board notes February 1973)

'Children need to go to the theatre as much as they need to run about in the fresh air.'

Philip Pullman

A chronological collection of posters from family shows at the National Theatre, starting with Hiawatha in 1982

This exhibit shines a spotlight on theatre created for children and their families. It explores  how children's stories have been adapted and produced at the National Theatre since 1980, using photographs from the shows and the rehearsal room, costume and set designs, and interviews with writers, directors and designers about the process of making theatre for young audiences.

'The best children's theatre is created for all ages. Pantomime has survived because it is made for adults as well as children. It's a family experience. 

An important part of theatre for children is that it is a shared experience - shared with their adult carers and their peers.'

Jackie Tait 

Primary and Early Years Programme Manager, National Theatre

Poster for the pantomime Cinderella in 1983

'Theatre, particularly theatre for children, fires the imagination, it gives our children the skills and the creativity necessary to face the world, to understand it and perhaps to change it too. We should value children's theatre and take it seriously and that means treating it with the respect that we would any work of art, including reviewing and critiquing it.'

Lyn Gardner 

(The Guardian, 2013)

Poster for The Wind in the Willows, 1990

The Wind in the Willows was Director Nicholas Hytner’s second production for the National Theatre and his first to unite music, text, design and fantasy to such spectacular effect. Alan Bennett’s adaptation of Grahame’s children’s classic, while enjoyably light of touch, threw deft barbs at the Thatcherite ethos of the day. Mark Thompson’s settings astonished, not least when a fully-furnished riverbank home rose up from below, and Jeremy Sams’ songs remain in the memory to this day. This is the play for which the cast was enjoined to go off and study the movements of the animals they were required to impersonate. Michael Bryant returned with a 'mission accomplished' gleam in his eye. 'I have made a most interesting discovery,' he announced. 'Badgers move exactly like Michael Bryant.'

Nicholas Wright, Playwright

Mark Thompson's award winning set design for Wind in the Willows
A series of Mark Thompson's costume designs for The Wind in the Willows
Griff Rhys Jones as Toad, in an iconic image from the 1990 production

'Theatre is a wonderful context for learning and thinking about the world, no matter what age you are.'

Jackie Tait

Primary and Early Years Programme Manager, National Theatre

Poster for Haroun and the Sea Stories, 1998

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is a children's book by Salman Rushdie that begins in a city so old and ruinous that it has forgotten its name.

The stories are allegories for problems existing in society today, and viewed through the eyes of a young boy called Haroun. 

Tim Supple and David Tushingham adapted the book for the stage. The play premiered in 1998 at the National Theatre in London

A series of costume designs by Melly Still  for Haroun and the Sea Stories, 1998
Production image of Iff the Water Genie and  Haroun
Production image of Mudra and his Shadow
Poster for His Dark Materials, 2003
Production image of Lyra Belacqua surrounded by polar bears

Director Nicholas Hytner created a grand and moving spectacle, in which Giles Cadle’s designs transported young Lyra (Anna Maxwell Martin in the play’s first incarnation) on a mystical journey from an Oxford college to the icy North to the ice-palace of the bears to a ghoul-haunted Mediterranean town … and that’s only Play One of a two-play show. The love of her life (Dominic Cooper), and the Land of the Dead would follow. Daemons … the characterful familiars of Lyra’s world … sprang to life courtesy of the American puppeteer Michael Curry, as did a herd of magically suggestive Polar bears. Movement, of which there was much, was the realm of Aletta Collins while Jonathan Dove’s music made the hair stand up at the back of your neck.

Nicholas Wright, Playwright

Production image of Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter with their daemons
Production image of Lyra and Will in Oxford
Video of a rehearsal for the witch torture scene in His Dark Materials, 2003
Philip Pullman with one of the puppets from the show

'I can remember evenings in the theatre, both as a child and as an adult, which were among the most important things I've ever known. Seeing Frankie Howerd as Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Old Vic when I was nine, and laughing so much I fell off my seat; watching Peter Hall's production of the Oresteia at the National Theatre, and feeling a sense of awe at the gradual unfolding of this ancient, savage, profound story; more recently, simultaneously helpless with laughter and shivering with pity and terror at the extraordinary Shock-Headed Peter. If I hadn't seen those things, my life would be much the poorer. Theatre feeds the heart and nourishes the soul and enlarges the spirit.'

Philip Pullman, Author 

(Theatre - the true key stage, The Guardian, 2013)

Poster for Coram Boy, 2005

Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Jamila Gavin’s novel Coram Boy, produced in the Olivier Theatre in November 2005, was directed and co-designed by Melly Still and involved a production team of twenty-nine people. It was an epic production with a cast of twenty actors playing multiple roles, plus a chorus of seventeen singers performing excerpts from Messiah by Handel, one of the Foundling Hospital’s first benefactors.

Jamila first had the idea for her book after a discussion with a friend revealed to her the existence in the mid-eighteenth century of “Coram men”, often corrupt individuals who exploited the emotional calamity experienced by unmarried mothers by promising (for money) to take their babies to the new orphanages that had sprung up in England following the establishment in London in 1741 of the very first of these: the Thomas Coram foundling hospital. Some babies made it there – many did not.

A series of costume designs for Coram Boy by Ti Green and Melly Still, 2005
Production image of Melissa Milcote in the field hospital.
Production image of Mashak Gardiner

'Theatre is a place where you can deal with big scary things and show that, without the pain and the death, our experience of joy and life is not so vivid.'

Melly Still, Director

(The Guardian, 2006)

Poster for War Horse, 2007

The National Theatre's epic production of War Horse is based on the celebrated novel by the Children's Laureate (2003-05) Michael Morpurgo.

South Africa's Handspring Puppet Company brings breathing, galloping, full-scale horses to life on the stage — their flanks, hides and sinews built of steel, leather and aircraft cables.

Production image of Joey and a puppeteer

The National Theatre Studio is where themes are investigated, plays are read and tried out and where shows can be developed through workshops, sometimes over a period of years. Many plays have benefited from the Studio treatment, but none more than War Horse which needed to create the carnage of the First World War on stage and, harder than that, to credibly place a horse as the protagonist of the tale. The South African company puppetry artists Handspring solved this with brilliance and in their hands Joey became a star overnight. Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris's direction, Rae Smith’s designs and John Tams’ music worked together to create a stunning piece of theatre for audiences of all ages.

Nicholas Wright, Playwright

ADAPTATION

'What’s extraordinary about the adaption is that on paper when I read it I thought an awful lot of it didn’t work. Why did I think that? Partly because it was different from what I had written, I’m sure, being a vain old thing, but secondly because I don’t think I understood the craft of playmaking at all and I had to be persuaded about a lot of it.'

(Michael Morpurgo in Making War Horse, 2009)

Michael Morpurgo speaks about his initial response to the adapted script of War Horse
Nick Stafford and Nicholas Hytner talk about adapting War Horse for the stage
Rae Smith approached the design through the eyes of Captain Nicholls
An extended trailer for War Horse with performance footage

PUPPETS

'Audiences, whether they are children or grown-up, imagine the puppet is alive. The audience give the gift of life to the puppet. Audiences of any age can do this but children are the world's experts at it. So even when the story is as serious as the story in War Horse, the audience have to use their imaginations, like when they were children. And when they do that, the horse comes to life!'

Tom Morris, Director

(The Guardian, 2014)

Handspring Puppet Company have a factory in South Africa  where they build their puppets
Prop choreography
Prompt script
Puppeteer Finn Caldwell animating the Goose puppet in rehearsal

'I think those countries with strong connections to the First World War interpret it their way, those who have less historical connection see the story more as one of the universal suffering in all wars, rather than just the First World War. Fascinating too, is the response of grandparents, children and grandchildren in the same audiences. Grandparents having the strongest connection to the experience of war, parents of course having a considerable understanding of it too and children relating particularly relating to the horse and boy side of the story. But everyone seems to relate most strongly of all to the thread that runs through the whole story. They all long for Joey to survive, for Albert to survive and for them both to be reunited and come home.'

Michael Morpurgo, Author

(The Guardian, 2014)

Production image of Albert and young Joey
Production image of the Song Man and Joey pulling the plough

PRODUCTION CHRONOLOGY

October 2007 - The National Theatre of Great Britain in association with Handspring Puppet Company first staged its production of War Horse on the Olivier stage.

February 2008 - War Horse wins six Laurence Olivier Awards including Best New Play and Best Director.

October 2008 - Due to phenomenal demand, the production is revived in the Olivier Theatre at the National.

March 2009 - The production transfers to the New London Theatre in the West End.

April 2011 - The Broadway production of War Horse opens at Lincoln Center in New York and receives wide critical acclaim.

June 2011 - The New York production wins five Tony Awards including Best Play, plus a Special Award for Handspring Puppet Company.

February 2012 - War Horse opens at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, Canada.

June 2012 - An extensive tour of the US begins at the Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles.

September 2013 -  UK and Ireland tour of War Horse opens at the Theatre Royal Plymouth.

October 2013 -  A German language production of War Horse, titled Gefährten, opens at the historic Theater des Westens in Berlin.

January 2014 - War Horse celebrates its 2,000th performance at the New London Theatre.

February 2014 - National Theatre Live broadcasts War Horse from the West End to over 1,000 cinemas around the world.

The poster for Beauty and the Beast, 2010

In 2010 Katie Mitchell devised a production of Beauty and the Beast, based on the well known fairy tale, for children aged between 8 and 12.

She held workshops at the outset of the project to provide the starting points for the rehearsal and design process. Children aged between 8 and 12 were invited into these workshops and participated in the creative process.

A rehearsal workshop with children.
Production image of The Man in Pink, the narrator chosen by children in rehearsals
A video about Katie Mitchell's approach to devising the Beauty and the Beast
Children were asked to draw the beast for designer Vicki Mortimer
Designer Vicki Mortimer used the children's designs as inspiration for the Beast's costume
Vicki Mortimer talks about designing children's shows and her designs for Beauty and the Beast
Research materials
Beauty and the Beast model box

'Children are a more challenging audience... and can accept  a very high level of craft, aesthetic and psychology. They are more sophisticated than we think.'

Katie Mitchell, Director

Production image of the Beast in his castle
Production image of Beauty and the Beast
The poster design for Hansel and Gretel, 2012

The National Theatre production of Hansel and Gretel in 2012 was written by Lucy Kirkwood, devised by Katie Mitchell and based on the fairy story recorded by the Brothers Grimm

Hansel and Gretel is a classic fairy tale about a brother and sister who are abandoned in a forest and ensnared by a witch living in a house made of cake and sweets. The children outwit the witch and escape.

Katie Mitchell invited children from local schools into her rehearsal room to help develop the piece.

Production image of Hansel and Gretel overhearing their father and stepmother plotting
Director Katie Mitchell makes children's responses part of the creative process
An interview with designer Vicki Mortimer about  her designs for Hansel and Gretel
Video about making props and puppets for Hansel and Gretel
Production image of the witch

'It's a long time since theatres hauled out the family show as a half-hearted Christmas nod towards an audience that was thought to be indifferent to quality. Nowadays writers, actors and directors fall over themselves to get involved in playing to an audience that is up for any kind of adventure, and without theatrical preconceptions. As a result, genuinely challenging and groundbreaking theatre is being made for families – theatre that puts a premium on clear story-telling and an even greater premium on telling those stories in a new way.' 

Nicholas Hytner, Artistic Director of the National Theatre

(The Guardian, 2013)

Credits: Story

Archive Manager — Erin Lee
Exhibit produced by  — Maya Gabrielle
Films by  — Pinny Grylls, Chloe White, Anthony Swords
Author and Journalist — Lyn Gardner
Primary and Early Years Programme Manager — Jackie Taitt
With thanks to — Emma Bull, Lyn Haill and Ge Zhang

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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