Lucy rivers

Theatre | Talking to Lucy Rivers

Just back from a gruelling and highly successful Edinburgh Fringe stint, Gagglebabble co-founder, writer, actor, musician, Lucy Rivers talks to Wales Arts Review, as the new adaptation of Roald Dahl short stories for adults comes back to Wales for a tour. Wonderman opens in Cardiff’s Tramshed on September 13th.

You’ve just come back from Edinburgh where the new Gagglebabble show, Wonderman, has had some great reviews. How did the trip go from your point of view?

It was quite nerve-wracking to open a completely new show in Edinburgh Fringe as we didn’t really know what we had created and how our show would go down, but thankfully the audiences seemed to love it. During the run, there were definitely little tweaks made as we went along and we also got to know how to play all the moments and find the laughs. There are things we feel we want to change and we wouldn’t know that without having performed it in front of an audience so it’s been really helpful for future developments. Amazingly for Edinburgh we were full most nights, which is incredible for a 200 seater venue and thanks to Twitter we always had lovely audiences responses afterwards. It’s great to be reminded that there is an audience out there for our type of gig-theatre. Roald Dahl’s stories were obviously quite a draw, and word-of-mouth meant there was quite a buzz around the show.

Lucy riversHave you decided to change anything, maybe augment something, or tone something down, off the back of the Edinburgh shows?

Of course! With every new show, there will always be ways of developing and making it better – it’s usually about having the time to make those changes. Amazingly we are about to go into another week of rehearsals to make some of those changes and additions before the Cardiff run. Those changes happen across all departments and are mostly to do with how to best tell the story, and how to best find the right tone and style of storytelling. Even during the run in Edinburgh we were able to make little tweaks, and the show is always shifting and hopefully getting better. One of the things that we know we want to introduce is a bit of pre-show music to help set the scene and style.

Gagglebabble seems to have existed round about the same length of time as Wales Arts Review has, and I remember one of the first things we reviewed was The Bloody Ballad. What has the journey been like for you since back then?

Well, The Bloody Ballad was a brilliant roller-coaster ride of a show for us and it has opened up a lot of doors and opportunities for us personally and for Gagglebabble. We have a couple more shows under our belts now, and I guess our company style and pool of collaborators and co-producers has grown, and our experience of running a company has also grown in confidence. We are still totally reliant on project funding, but we try to develop one new show and put on one new show a year. We’ve just completed a small development grant which has been really helpful at planning ahead, looking at branding and looking at how we can be more sustainable. We’ve managed to find some great producers and attract a good number of exciting co-producers to work with including Wonderman and our new show coming up in 2017. Although Hannah and I still work with other theatre companies, we always feel very lucky and excited when we come back to working on a Gagglebabble show.

The Bloody Ballad was a great success of course – did you see any differences or similarities in Edinburgh between that show and this one?

I think they are both quite different shows and we performed in very different venues, plus we didn’t have anything to prove with The Bloody Ballad so the success of the show was a brilliant surprise.

With Wonderman the pressure was on, as far as audience expectations and we didn’t know what we had created until a week in but thankfully the similarity is that we managed to get great audiences and reviews so there was a great buzz around the show. It was also funny doing the same media interviews and performances at Pick of the Fringe and the BBC Janice Forsythe show. In some ways The Bloody Ballad was a little bit more of a experimental, culty, Fringe show, whereas Wonderman despite it’s dark content felt more commercial and popular – probably because it’s Roald Dahl so audience numbers were good from the start. This time we had a lot more support from NTW, so the pressure of marketing and fringe business was being looked after which made things much easier. Definitely felt like we were more in control and prepared this time – even had time to do warm-ups!

How did that collaboration with NTW and the Wales Millennium Centre come about? And how has it been working with two such huge organisations?

Without NTW and WMC as co-producers our big ambitions for this show would not have been possible. Very early on we approached both companies and they have been brilliantly supportive from the start, which has included two Research and Development weeks over two years. Of course it’s been a learning curve working with two big organisations and you quickly realise clear communication is the key to making it work. Mostly we have been in charge of all the creative decisions but it’s been amazing to have all the expertise and creative minds to help and advise every step of the way and look after the producing and all the business side of things. It’s definitely a bigger show than we’ve done before and with their help and Arts Council of Wales funding, we’ve managed to achieve great production values and pull together an amazing team of professionals. It seems finding a few co-producers is the way forward for most companies nowadays, and we’re very lucky to have NTW and WMC put so much faith in us. Also excited to be doing a Xmas run of Wonderman at the WMC Weston Studio at the end of the year.

Lucy riversWhere did the idea come from to bring Roald Dahl’s short stories for adults to the stage?

Well, Hannah and I are big fans of Roald Dahl and his short stories and we felt they are a perfect match for our macabre and darkly comic style, we were also interested in tackling an existing text. Then two years ago, when I realised it was also his centenary coming up it seemed like a good idea to try and tell some of them for his centenary. I’d never seen any stage version of his stories for adults and we felt it was time they had an airing, and it felt like using music and song would really suit his style of storytelling.

Gagglebabble – correct me if I’m wrong – has a preoccupation with the macabre and the supernatural and the slightly grotesque; was this a natural fit with Dahl’s stories?

Ha, yes you know us so well. I think we’re also very drawn to his big characters, magical realism and gripping storytelling with twists and turns – which keep the audience/reader on the edge of their seat.  On reading his two volumes of short stories I was amazed how dark and brave and poetic and plain bonkers some of these stories really are. Most of them seem really fresh and original. As a kid I remember being sent to bed when Tales of the Unexpected theme tune came on, they represented an exciting and seductive world. There’s something about that heady mix of sexy, dark, dangerous and funny stories that appeals greatly – In fact that’s what we aim to achieve in every Gagglebabble show. Our motto is usually “what would Tarantino do?” On this show it’s been “what would David Lynch or David Bowie do?”

And how on earth do you begin selecting which of stories to use?

Quiet early on we (Hannah, Daf and I ) hit on the idea of framing a number of his stories within his first ever story written, the auto-biographical “A Piece of Cake”. From there we had great fun in choosing our favourites and then finding common themes and then went off on some big tangents before finally settling on our current show. It was a tricky process because there’s so many good stories, and we’ve had to settle on the stories that best suit our over-all story of our Airman – in fact it still might be added to in the future. We’ve also pulled in elements from his auto-biography Flying Solo. Luke Kelly’s (Dahl’s grandson) feedback on the first draft was very useful and Daf James has done an amazing job at trying to stick to all the words in the play being Dahl’s words. We ended up with a good mix of some very well-known ones (‘Lamb to the slaughter’, ‘The Landlady’, ‘Man from the South’) with a few less well-known (‘Pig’, ‘Beware the dog’).

How does the story you’re telling come together from all these composite parts?

That is the always te challenge when doing a show which is based around different stories and we wanted to find a way for the audience to follow one person – and who better than Dahl himself. We have set our show around ‘A Piece of Cake’ which is his first story written about his real-life experience of a young RAF airman, Dahl, crashing his Gladiator in the Libyan desert and having to spend a number of weeks recovering in a hospital in Alexandria. He goes in and out of consciousness and these stories and characters pop into his world in his hallucinations – he even gets caught up in these situations. We’ve tried to tell the story that this almighty bang on the head unlocked his creative imagination and helped him become the writer we know him as – which was something that Dahl himself promoted. It’s a delirious, dark and wonderful journey through the mind of one of the greatest storytellers and we’ve tried to give the audience a emotional heart to tie all the stories together.

You’re opening Wonderman in Cardiff on the actual centenary of Dahl’s birth – does that daunt you at all, being essentially the centerpiece of the whole year-long celebration?

It’s brilliant that we open on his actual birthday. Of course it’s going be very daunting performing in front of the Dahl family and estate, and it’s always a big responsibility to adapt well-loved stories to the quality they deserve. Mostly I think we all feel very proud to be given the opportunity by the Dahl estate to have a chance to bring these stories to the stage and hopefully introduce his adult writing to those who don’t know it. We had Roald Dahl’s biographer and friend Donald Sturrock see the show in Edinburgh who’s brilliant book Storyteller was a big help and inspiration (that was nerve-wracking) – thankfully he loved it and will be coming again with the family – fingers crossed they’ll enjoy it too.


More details of the Wonderman tour dates can be found here.

(Images by Kirsten McTernan)