The attraction of David Walliams’ The First Hippo on the Moon?
Well, it’s all there in the title, says Finn Caldwell who – with Nick Barnes – leads the creative team which brings the show to the stage at the Royal Hippodrome Theatre, Eastbourne over Christmas (December 13-January 7).
“It’s about a hippo that is trying to get to the moon. The point is that it is such a ridiculous idea, and that’s the charm of it. There are no prisoners taken in the logic. It is about this hippo that wants to be the first hippo on the moon, and it all gets into a kind of space-race situation.”
Finn’s task is to take the 2D from the page and make it 3D on the stage. But actually, it’s more complicated than that still.
“If you take a 2D image like in David’s book and make it literally into a 3D image, you are going to get something that is very blocky.
“That’s one of the big challenges we have… one of the big challenges we had with War Horse too. One of the big productions I did was War Horse. I was in the original cast and also directed the puppetry in England and around the world. I had a desire in me to make the anatomy of the animal work, even if it is comic or stylised. The hippos are very big and blocky and splodgy on the page. My job is to work out where the elbow goes! It’s about demanding the realism that will allow it to work and so create what feels like a living, breathing creature on stage. You need the romance from the picture book, but you also need to find a way to breathe life into the creature.
“Almost all of the shows I have done have had a very strong visual element. You have to start with research and development. I tend to make rough prototypes of what the puppets might be, and I make them very fast so we can play with them and see what we can do with them.
“In this, the central character is like a lady in a suit, and she has got to have a half-mask (to look like a hippo), but when you do that, you are hiding a lot of the face from the audience. But it is important that the audience can still relate to her.
“I imagine it must be a bit like Disneyland where you see a Disney character in a full suit and mask and you recognise that character straight away, but you recognise that it is a human being in a suit. The mask amplifies the human being’s body, but the mask can make it difficult to connect with the character. With this, we have got a half mask so you can still see the mouth so that you can still relate the face to the words she is saying.”
The show comes from Les Enfants Terrible’s sister company Les Petits Theatre Company.
“They were talking to David Walliams about doing this work, and they asked me. I had made a show a couple of years ago called The Elephantom, a piece of a similar size and age range. It was at the National and in the West End. They had seen the show. And also I was really drawn to David Walliams’ work. I love that crazy David Walliams’ sense of humour and that crazy concept of a hippo in space. It was very much the kind of visual theatre that I am into.”
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