Beatrix Potter’s Mr Tod brought to life by Ipswich’s Red Rose Chain theatre company
- Credit: Archant
Mr Tod was having a bad day when entertainment writer Wayne Savage caught up with him. The disagreeable fox had come home to find arch enemy Tommy Brock snoring away in his bed. Wait until Tod sees what’s in his oven...
Tired of writing “goody goody books about nice people”, Beatrix Potter thought her editors were too cautious and too concerned about upsetting people. Convinced she could create more complex characters and plots the terrible Tod and Brock were born.
Red Rose Chain’s Kirsty Thorpe, Rachael McCormick and Lawrence Russell were deep in rehearsal when I caught up with them last week. Thorpe, currently playing Peter Rabbit, is hiding behind a chair. McCormick, wrapped in a black and white Newcastle United dressing gown doubling as badger Brock’s fur, is asleep on a sofa. Russell, as Tod, is working up the courage to get rid of his unwelcome guest.
The company’s artistic director Joanna Carrick is guiding them through the scene, when she’s not providing a temporary dramatic soundtrack. A debate where Tod’s imaginary bedroom window should bring proceedings to a temporary halt.
“You get people who go ‘oh I don’t know the story’, then you get people who do and who go ‘oh my goodness that’s incredible’,” she says excitedly during the break. “My dad says it’s his favourite book and my dad’s read everything. It’s a brilliant, epic story. Todd and Brock are two nasty, villainous, characters but they’re sent up by Beatrix Potter and by us.”
I won’t spoil what happens, in case you’re in the first camp. Being a Red Rose Chain adaptation, even those who do know are in for some surprises.
Unusually, the play - full of mystery, suspense and festive fun - is set in the present. Two youngsters are forced to up sticks from London when their parents decide to quit the rat race. Relocating to seemingly sleepy Suffolk, they venture into the attic where they find loads of junk left behind by the previous occupants. Amid a pile of books they find The Tale of Mr Tod.
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“That’s the beginning of the story... It gradually unfurls and the kids use stuff from the attic to tell the story. So nothing is too literal... It’s very much the way kids play. There’s a bit with a tunnel that’s going brilliantly in rehearsal. We’ve found this hilarious thing, I won’t say what it is. It’s just like when you were a kid,” says Carrick, miming tunnelling under a bedsheet, “or when you make things out of cushions.
“For us, it’s got to be highly organised as you can tell from rehearsals,” she laughs. “But from the audience’s point of view it just looks like ‘awww, the kids are just running and playing with everything and everything’s going everywhere’. Hopefully (it’ll strike a chord with children but) remind all the adults what it was like when they were kids too... A time when rugs become magic carpets...
“We have planes in it, everything. There are no limits to what you can do, there’s nothing we can say in rehearsal ‘oh could we do, oh no we can’t’ – ‘yes, we can, how can we do it’. We just have to use our imagination. I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”
Carrick, known for her historically themed plays, sought inspiration from Potter’s original diaries which she wrote from when she was very young to her 30s. She got to know the writer, who makes an appearance in the show, very well.
“She was quite irreverent really and wasn’t afraid of playing games with things so I think she’d like this. But, again, we’ve reinvented it for a modern audience - they’re modern kids and modern kids will be coming to watch this show. As the story goes on you forget they’re in an attic, you just get lost in the story and that’s what happens to the youngsters in the show.”
The Tale of Mr Tod, running from December 10-January 3, is an important one for Red Rose Chain. It’s the company’s first Christmas show at the new Avenue theatre in Gippeswyk Avenue.
“This is great because it’s opening The Avenue up for Christmas and getting a wider audience. That’s a big deal because people have really big traditions at Christmas don’t they. I’m quite amazed, excited and slightly touched by the fact so many people are booking and want to (help us) create a new tradition.”
It was important that, in terms of the Christmas shows on in and around Ipswich, that the show wasn’t similar to what somebody else was doing.
“I felt for quite a long time there is definitely a gap in what is provided locally. You’ve got two pantomimes, Eastern Angles does its really funny, alternative show and what I’m going in with is the magical story that’s for all the family. That doesn’t mean to say it’s not funny and doesn’t mean to say it’s not got elements of traditional Christmas humour in it because it has.”
Carrick loves interpreting existing stories. Previous seasonal show The Magic Fishbone was a Dickens’ story, this is by Potter. While she hasn’t decided on next year’s show, it will be another classical story reinvented in true Red Rose Chain style with lots of physical stuff, lots of variety but still true to the original.
“There are old favourites in this story. The hero is Benjamin Bunny and his cousin Peter Rabbit who comes along with him. They’re obviously characters everybody knows - is there anybody in the world who doesn’t know who Peter Rabbit is?”