An interview with Andy Stanton, whose stage play Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear opens at the National Theatre tomorrow (31st July).
How did the theatre production come about?
In 2015 the National Theatre asked me if I would like to do a play about Mr Gum and I said it should be a musical! Their first mistake was asking me and the second was letting me do a musical.
How involved have you been in the adaptation?
I wrote the book of the play, I wrote the lyrics and really I’ve been involved in lots of different departments. I get to make sure my vision matches their vision and vice versa. My main job is being consulted on everything I need to be and not sticking my nose into everything I don’t. That’s hard to learn when you have complete control.
One of the props is a stack of books and they asked me to come up with amusing titles and authors and I loved that. One of the books is Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear by Andy Stanton and the book underneath is Self-referentiality and Meta Humour in Children’s Humour. Another is Book in a Stack by the National Theatre.
L-R Gary Wilmot, Keziah Joseph, Kate Malyon and Richard Cant (©TheOtherRichard)
What did you learn about having to keep your nose out of things?
The closer you get to production the more you learn you can’t change lines! There were plenty of things I wanted to add in at the end but then I found out it would take 20 minutes of everyone’s time. Next time I need to make sure I ask for any changes earlier.
Why did you choose the fifth Mr Gum book to adapt?
That one offered the most possibilities in terms of locations and movement and it had the biggest emotional arc. It was interesting to find out what aspects work on the page and not on the stage. I find it really enjoyable. In a book you can say ‘a million spaceships come down’. In the theatre you can’t because it involved budget and logistics. It forces you to find different solutions. It changes the whole way you write a scene.
Were you involved in casting?
I was. I was there for 95% of it. That was one of the most stressful parts of the process. You think what if we don’t get the right folks? And then just like everything it all magically (but with lots of hard work) came together. We have a brilliant cast. Mr Gum is Steve Furst. He’s the most generous and giving and accommodating actor. He brings massive funny, massive competent and massive willingness to go the extra mile. In this show everyone has to do 9 jobs at any one time and Steve is brilliant anchor.
What do you think a stage production adds to a story?
Tons of things! Just the physicality of the actors. It’s really joyful to see. It brings a shared vision—it’s not my play, it’s everyone’s play. The actors have interpreted my story but they devise little physical games that I never imagined. My favourite moment is when two people stand on stage and do almost nothing, in complete silence. You try your hard to write a zippy script but then you get upstaged by two people swaying on a stage!
When will the play run until?
From now until the end of August.
How has the audience reacted? Any surprising reactions?
The audiences at previews have been brilliant. We’ve had laughs and cheers and boos for the villain. I can’t believe how generous they are. We’ve had kids repeating catch phrases, which is brilliant to see. And giving their own heckles!
What was your inspiration for the first Mr Gum book?
Books are one of the biggest things in my life. I had lots of ideas but wasn’t doing anything about it until one day I thought well why don’t I write a story. I sat down and wrote the first Mr Gum in essentially one night. I wrote it for my little cousins, who half listened, then put it away for two years. It was only when I rediscovered it I thought ‘this is pretty good’. I sent it to agents and got turned down by five before Eva White said she wanted to talk. I had an agent within a month and an offer from Egmont a month and a half after that. There are eight Mr Gum books in total.
Are you doing more Paninis of Pompeii books?
There will be at least 2 more. I’m going to start on the second one any day now! Working on a theatrical collaboration is even more consuming than doing a book. I will do the second one as soon as I have a sleep and some breakfast.
L-R Keziah Joseph and Kate Malyon (©TheOtherRichard)