The stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s modern classic invites you to follow the adventures of Bertie and the White Lion as they search for sanctuary amid adversity.
The play is at the Theatre Royal Brighton from Monday to Saturday, November 11-16, with Gwen as the narrator in the role of Millie.
It’s a remarkable story to bring to the stage: “But they did it with War Horse as a stage production,” Gwen says. “The stage production is superior to the film, but I do like a bit of magic on the stage – and I love it when it works!”
But actually, simplicity is the key: “This is a reasonably simple production. You need a bit of imagination, and it works very well. We go from Africa to Wiltshire and to school, and of course, we go to the battlefields of the First World War.”
Helping tell the story are three lions, starting with the baby lion: “And then we have what we call the teenage lion which is simply beautifully manipulated by a human being, which gives the spirit of the lion, and then we have the elderly lion that comes on at the end, that is worn out and rather moving. I just find puppetry so clever. It is wonderful the way that it captures the spirit of the lion.”
It helps too that it is such a cracking tale they’ve got to tell: “Michael Morpurgo is great. He does not talk down to children. Some of it is rather dark. He is not afraid to tackle some quite dark things. When Bertie uses a rifle, we had a little girl that thought the lion had been shot and was quite upset. I really do think that children get wonderfully involved in this story. It is amazing. It has really taught me a lot about the power of story-telling.
“Daniel Buckroyd, our adaptor and director, has made Millie one of the main characters. She is the main narrator for the story.
“Michael Morpurgo handed the piece over because he had seen some of the work that Daniel had done before, and then he didn’t see it again until two or three weeks ago in Cambridge. Michael came to see it, and he was enormously complimentary, which was lovely. He was talking about writing it. It was written before War Horse, and it deals with some of the same elements as War Horse does, such as the First World War.
“We were very grateful that Michael liked it. It would have been awful if he hadn’t! The way Daniel has structured it, we have got some cliff-hanger moment that are quite often resolved in a humorous way.”
For Gwen, it comes on the back of a very happy experience on tour in Driving Miss Daisy: “I loved doing that. It was so wonderful. It was one of the nicest things I have ever done.”
Further vindication of that decision, years ago, to give up the day job in a bank.
“I was eight years as a bank clerk. I was coming up to some exams and had to decide whether I should move on with my career or go with my heart and go with drama. I was unhappily married at the time. It was a marriage that had gone wrong very early on, and I was not completely fulfilled at the bank... and I was much happier when I was doing amateur dramatics!”