The Way from Picture Book to Stage Play

A boy finds an aeroplane in a cupboard and then flies to the moon. Marooned there with an equally lost Martian, he needs to find a way back home. No, this is not the plot for that Matt Damon movie, but rather a children’s stage play currently showing at PJ Live Arts.

“The Way Back Home” is staged in the morning on weekdays and afternoon on Sundays. The opening performance that doubled for a press preview saw the children having a lot of fun throughout the entire show. The concept is much like popular children’s TV shows such as “Blue’s Clues” or “Sesame Street” with plenty of music and interaction as the cast asked for the young ones’ inputs, from suggesting tools to even passing a rope. Some of them were very vocal yet restrained.

“They do it naturally, and we do make the questions simple,” said Charlotte Cooper who plays the Martian in “The Way Back Home”. “They don’t always react but the next time (the cue comes up), they know what to do — they’re learning.”

Both Cooper and fellow cast member Harrison Spiers (who plays the Boy) agreed that Asian and American audiences were more receptive to their prompts.

Both Spiers (left) and Cooper have executed their performance well and are a credit to their production company

‘The Way Back Home’ is a fun stage play for children

“Children in the UK are more reserved. You have to really work hard to get the children to join in,” said Cooper. “In America and here (KL), you can get them to participate (voluntarily).”

The play itself is a loose adaptation of a very short children’s book. Each sequence is elaborated by the actors who both dressed up colourfully for each role. One of them even had some face paint applied in the middle of the show.

“In the UK, I can take it (the green paint) off after the show, but here, probably because of the humidity, my face remains a shade of yellow,” said Cooper.

These are, of course, not really in the book. However, if you have read the 32-page book, this production of “The Way Back Home” stays true to the spirit of the original and has even expanded on the themes and concepts of the multi-award winning work by popular children’s illustrator and author, Oliver Jeffers.

Cooper (centre) as the Martian, marshalling the young audience using ‘teachery’ words during the rope-pull sequence

Jeffers first did an illustration book, “How to Catch a Star” in 2004. That title won a Merit Award the following year at the CBI Book of the Year Awards. Since then, he has produced a continuous stream of wonderful picture books, winning numerous awards.

In 2007, he was the official World Book Day illustrator. In 2008, Jeffers was featured in The Times’ list of “The Best New Picture Book Illustrators”. Many of his picture books have been translated — some into over 30 languages — while others have been adapted for stage productions including “The Way Back Home”, “Stuck”, “How to Catch A Star”, “The Incredible Book Eating Boy” and others.

The adaptation of “The Way Back Home” by Big Wooden Horse Theatre Co was represented by performers Cooper and Spiers.

There have been some comical happenings as one would expect from staging a children’s theatre.

“Once, there was a microphone issue and there was one time I got stuck in there (the cupboard),” said Spiers. “You have to improvise with the show to ensure the children are entertained.”

The press preview also saw Spiers dropping the container for the face paint on stage, but he made it part of the act and even got a few giggles from the audience.

“A huge chunk of the face paint was also travelling to my lips,” laughed Cooper. “But I’m usually focused on the rope segment.”

Cooper (left) and Spiers during a tender moment in the play

The rope is a prop used by Cooper and Spiers towards the end of the show. The sequence had them passing it through the audience. The children were supposed to pass it and then let go of the rope as the two performers pulled it to each other. This caused some excitement among the tiny audience and they behaved properly by not holding on to it.

“I use ‘teachery’ words,” said Cooper. “I usually don’t, but for the rope, you have to because I’m going to pull it.”

It seems simple to the outsider, staging a children’s theatre, but there is a lot that goes into it, including analysing children’s cognition and the suitable words as well as the tone being used. One element that might fly over the children’s heads is the ending that has a slight tinge of sadness to it.

However, it is never wise to underestimate the youngsters and both Cooper and Spiers have shown much respect to the audience as well as to their craft.

These two actors have executed their performance well and are a credit to their production company, Big Wooden Horse.

Big Wooden Horse was founded by artistic director Adam Bampton-Smith in 2004 with the aim of producing theatres for younger audiences across the UK and to represent British theatre craft abroad. The company first visited Malaysia earlier this year with its stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ “Stuck”. Other productions included “The Legend of Perseus”, “The Night before Christmas”, “The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus”, “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” and “Aliens Love Underpants”. “The Way Back Home” was brought here by Gardner & Wife Theatre Sdn Bhd that has been very consistent in bringing theatrical productions, especially children’s plays, to Malaysia. They also furnished the very colourful set, though the airplane and the flying saucer were brought by the actors.

“We put them in bubble wrap and told the Customs, ‘don’t worry, it’s just a spaceship’,” laughed Cooper.

“The Way Back Home” is currently being staged at PJ Live Arts, Jaya One, until Nov 8. Shows from Monday to Friday are at 10am and Sundays at 2pm and 5pm. There are no shows on Saturday. The production will be at Auditorium, SK Methodist (ACS) in Ipoh on Oct 29 and Performing Arts Centre of Penang at Straits Quay on Oct 30.

Tickets are priced from RM53 to RM84.80. For more info, please contact 03 7960 0439 or 017 228 9849. Alternatively, you can go to www.tix.my for bookings. Please contact Donna Delizo at 012 230 2469 for info on school group bookings.