A story within a story. Toby Mitchell talks about The Snail and The Whale.

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The stage adaption of The Snail and The Whale by Tall Stories theatre company has travelled the world. This month it makes a stop in Salford at The Lowry (Wed 30 May – Sun 3 June). Here Toby Mitchell talks about the challenges of making a story within a story and his favourite characters.

Without giving away too much of what makes the show so special, can you describe what the challenges were of telling a story within a story?

At Tall Stories we’ve loved Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s fantastic story about the snail and the whale for years. The original challenge was thinking about how to put that story on stage – with those two very different characters. Reading an article about Storybook Soldiers gave us the idea of telling the story with a young daughter (representing the snail) who desperately wants to go around the world with her Royal Navy father (the whale). Then, it was a question of fitting the two stories together seamlessly and clearly, so the audience knows where they are within each one.

How were you challenged or invigorated by the idea of adapting such a beloved story? How were the authors of the book involved in your process, if at all?

This is the fourth Donaldson/Scheffler book we have adapted and we’re always invigorated by their brilliant stories. When we first had the idea for how to adapt the book, we spoke to Julia about it, and while she wasn’t sure how the two stories would fit together, she trusted us to work it out. She also came up with the idea of using live music. Meanwhile Axel’s fantastic pictures inspired many scenes in the show – like the ninja crabs and the penguins. Both Julia and Axel have seen the show – and enjoyed it. Phew!

I know The Snail and the Whale has played in a lot of different places. What’s the process like of moving a show around like that? How does it change in each city? Or, is there a point where the whole thing is really set in stone?

The show has played all around the UK, as well as in Paris, Warsaw, Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bermuda, Canada, the US and Australia! It’s broadly the same in each place, but it’s never “set in stone.” As with any truly live show – and especially live shows for family audiences – it changes each time, depending on how the audience reacts.

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Can you tell us which character is a favourite, or what you love about all of them?

My favourite is the chief penguin (one of many characters played by the very imaginative dad), because he’s so grumpy, but he loves it when the audience gets his song right. And then the snail herself is so brave, so resourceful, so excited by life, that you just have to love her. Meanwhile, the narrator (the daughter as a grown-up) is our friendly guide through both stories, with her fantastic electric viola, creating all the music and sound effects herself.

If a kid or young person told you they want to be a theatre director when they grow up, what advice would you have for them?

Watch a lot of theatre! Read books and scripts. Think about how you would make characters and scenes come alive visually on stage. And – above all – remember that theatre is different from film and television. You can tell stories brilliantly in both those media, but theatre is different. Theatre is live. Think about what that means. All of us – actors and audience – are in a room together experiencing a story. How does that affect the way you would tell it?

What, would you say, is the core message to take away from the show? How do you hope kids and families leave feeling?

The core message of Julia’s story is that small things can achieve big things. The message of the show is to love stories and use your imagination. As the dad says, a good story can take you all around the world, without even leaving your room. We hope kids and families will leave feeling energized – and ready to go home to make dens, tell stories and sing songs!

Thank you to the New Victory Theater for conducting the interview.

The Snail and The Whale comes to The Lowry Wed 30 May – Sun 3 June. For more information or tickets visit The Lowry website here, or call box office on 0843 208 6000.

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