A Joan Aiken Weather forecast…

Winterthing

What if Winter came and never ended? We now know our world and our climate are changing, and the outcome may be already beyond our control.  Joan Aiken imagined a time where our actions, as in the old stories before science gave us the alarming facts, would bring the wrath of  the Gods or Nature down upon us; now the reality of our future  is not so different.

One poetic but salutary summing up of the possibilities of increasingly wild weather conditions was given in the Beaufort Scale, a weather system devised by a Royal Navy officer, later Admiral, Sir Francis Beaufort, which shows by detailed observation increasingly worsening conditions at sea, and on land. Joan Aiken was very taken by its descriptive language and desperate message of foreboding and adapted it into a song for her play about a family trapped on a tiny Winter-fast island about to disappear into the  snow and the Northern Lights…

Beaufort SongBeaufort Verses

Joan Aiken allows a bit of fun with the earlier verses and rhymes, suggesting a moderately accepting frame of mind, an observer who notes the changing conditions and takes precautions, ‘canoes return to port as…’ but Beaufort’s description for Force Twelve is simply one word – Devastation – and here we understand that everything is finally out of our hands – we may as well try and count the flakes of snow.

Kaye Webb the inspired and inspiring Editor of Puffin Books commissioned Joan Aiken to write this play in the 1970’s, and it was produced at the Young Vic Theatre. She wrote in the introduction to the Puffin edition:

“Joan Aiken’s stories are all touched with magic…so it is not surprising that she has written plays about mysterious, lonely places… and here a group of children come to the island named after the deadly ‘Winterthing’, the time when the island is so swallowed up in winter that it disappears from mortal sight.”

And of course this is not just a story, we do need to pay attention to the changes going on around us, for as Joan Aiken also wrote :

Purpose of stories

…and maybe take action before it is too late?

*   *   *   *   *   *   *  

More about Joan Aiken Plays can be found here

Illustration by Arvis Stewart from the Holt Rinehart Winston edition

Music by Joan’s son John Sebastian Brown

 

 

Advertisements

In the spirit of Joan Aiken…

WLV_S_03

‘Once upon a time that never was…in an England that never existed…’ Joan Aiken wrote a story that was to become her signature work, a story that would live in the memories of readers and haunt them ever afterwards, just like the wolves of the now famous title.

One of the people who responded enthusiastically was an American schoolboy called William Akers in Tennessee, whose teacher read the story aloud to his class.  He decided that one day he would write a screenplay of the book and get it filmed, and years later he did, having shared his plan with Joan Aiken, and sold his dream to British production company Zenith.

Although they assembled a fantastic cast including Mel Smith, Richard O’Brien and Stephanie Beacham they also ran amok with the Gothic action – having villainess Miss Slighcarp terrorise the two small heroines with a steam powered sledge and a devastating array of kitchen knives so the dream became more of a nightmare…Steam sleighAnother young reader who never forgot the story was Russ Tunney, and his adaptation first produced in 2010 in a collaboration between the Nuffield Theatre, Southampton where he was artistic director, and touring company Forest Forge Theatre directed by Kirstie Davis, has since been published by Nick Hern Books, and presented by amateur and professional companies.

The latest hugely successful sell-out production has been at the tiny Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, South London, where the company, like Tunney, have brought out the poetry of the book, and shown the seasons and landscape described by Joan Aiken as an ever-changing background to the adventures of the two heroines and their struggle to defeat the human ‘wolves’ of the title. This dramatic story moves from the misty snowy woods and rivers of the great house of Willoughby Chase, to the blossoming Yorkshire Dales of their journey south to find friends.

This script also uses folk songs – Wild Mountain Thyme and Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair – as well as scenes of skating and travelling to give a visual sense of the journey of discovery made by the characters, and their developing relationships, and this production has some lovely sequences of movement and dance, not just with the wolves, but with the snowy and then greening trees on their way.

Slighcarp

Tunney’s script is also pure pantomime, in the best sense of storytelling, and allows for some wild comedy in the performances.  The actors are often visibly seen changing from one role to another, and collude with the audience, moving in and out of their characters in the story just as a parent does when reading aloud.  This allows a dramatic suspension of disbelief and scenes of riotous humour at the expense of what might otherwise be terrifying villains like Miss Slighcarp, the evil governess – here in The Jack production appropriately dressed in wolf skins! Just as Joan Aiken’s original story appealed to adults and children alike, with excitement and comedy blended with poetic atmosphere, this is the best kind of family entertainment.

It seems like the perfect day,  January 4th,  on the anniversary of Joan’s death in the middle of the bleak midwinter, to celebrate another honouring of her most famous story with its evergreen depiction of hope and friendship, and the fact that it still, after fifty years in print, keeps springing up in new versions and wonderful re-incarnations and finding new audiences.

I have to say the oddly perfect moment (now luckily with its own happy ending!) was when the actress playing Bonnie Green confronted her evil governess and in attempting to knock a giant cane out of her hands, was herself injured but carried on bravely to the end of the show. Simon her dear friend and protector, who in the story helps her escape in his donkey cart full of geese on the way to market, was also on hand after the performance to convey her to A & E in Lewisham and make sure no bones were broken!

Thanks to all these passionate followers, the spirit of Joan Aiken lives on.

>>>>>*<<<<<

Tunney play

Script published by Nick Hern Books

Read more about Tunney’s adaptation here

Thanks to all at The Jack Studio for a fantastic evening!

Illustration from the Folio edition by Bill Bragg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wolves on Stage!

The Wolves Progress - Poster

  Here is the first opportunity to see Russ Tunney’s brilliant adaptation of  Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase live on stage since it was published as a Nick Hern playscript earlier this year.

Originally performed by a cast of five unbelievably quick change artists for a very successful tour around Southern England by Forest Forge Theatre company, this lively, funny, scary and above all faithfully Aiken adaptation is coming to The Progress Theatre Reading, for a couple of weeks only this month from 16th to the 25th of January – tickets going like hot cakes so if you are anywhere near Reading, England do book now!

Booking details here!

Crammed into this incredibly fast moving show we see Dickensian scenes of London, the terrifying pursuit over the snowy wastes by Wolves of our two hapless heroines, villainy and skulduggery galore with a brace of beastly villains, and best of all the unbelievable

Cheese Alphabet!

Using all the tongue in cheek humour of the original story with its gothic thrills and adventures, Russ has also added some ‘more than Aiken’ touches of his own – including the deliciously ridiculous  alphabet recited by the starving orphans in the dreadful Blastburn School run by beastly Mrs Brisket. When the school inspector comes to call they are dragged to their feet to recite:

MRS BRISKET. Show the nice man from from Ofsted our advanced literacy: The Cheese Alphabet!

 

CHILDREN. A is for Applewood Smoked, B is for Brie, C is

for Cheshire, D is for Davidstow, E is for Edam, F is for Feta

(or Fromage), G is for Gruyère, H is for Halloumi, I is for

Ibérico, J is for Jarlsberg, K is for Klosterkäse, L is for

Leicester (red), M is for Mascarpone, Manchego or

Monterey Jack, N is for Neufchâtel, O is for Orkney Extra

Mature, P is for Parmesan, Q is for Queso Jalapeño, R is for

Raclette, S is for Stilton, T is for Tasmania Highland Chevre

Log, U is for Ubriaco, V is for Vacherin Fribourgeois, W is

for Wensleydale, X is for Xynotyro, Y is for Yorkshire Blue,

and Z is for Zanetti Grana Padano.

 

INSPECTOR. Incredible! They really know their cheeses!

 

MRS BRISKET. Thank you, Inspector. We do, here at the

Brisket Blastburn Academy for Girls, concentrate on the

three R’s. Reading, Writing and Really tasty snacks.

  An absolute delight! – the Stage review of the première says it all:  “A gift for any company as family entertainment… a glorious snuggle down and enjoy Christmas present of a production that will charm children and adults alike.”

*****

“Wolves” Play Out Today – “A Glorious Christmas Show”?

Wolves Play Cover Russ Tunney

Russ Tunney, Artistic Director of The Nuffield Theatre and long time Aiken admirer has adapted and premiered a gloriously funny and faithful stage version of Joan Aiken’s classic children’s book  The Wolves of Willoughby Chase  which is just celebrating its 50th Anniversary.  The adaptation is published today by Nick Hern Books in a practical edition with performance notes and background information, and lends itself usefully to a cast of anything from five incredibly active quick change artists to a large cast and  possibly even a chorus of children, with music and songs and plenty of laughs.

Using all the tongue in cheek humour of the original story and its gothic thrills and adventures, Russ has also added some ‘more than Aiken’ touches of his own – including the deliciously ridiculous ‘Cheese Alphabet’ recited by the hapless starving orphans, including our two wretched heroines, in the dreadful Blastburn School run by beastly Mrs Brisket.

When the school inspector comes to call they are dragged to their feet to recite:

MRS BRISKET. Show the nice man from from Ofsted our

advanced literacy: The Cheese Alphabet!

 

CHILDREN. A is for Applewood Smoked, B is for Brie, C is

for Cheshire, D is for Davidstow, E is for Edam, F is for Feta

(or Fromage), G is for Gruyère, H is for Halloumi, I is for

Ibérico, J is for Jarlsberg, K is for Klosterkäse, L is for

Leicester (red), M is for Mascarpone, Manchego or

Monterey Jack, N is for Neufchâtel, O is for Orkney Extra

Mature, P is for Parmesan, Q is for Queso Jalapeño, R is for

Raclette, S is for Stilton, T is for Tasmania Highland Chevre

Log, U is for Ubriaco, V is for Vacherin Fribourgeois, W is

for Wensleydale, X is for Xynotyro, Y is for Yorkshire Blue,

and Z is for Zanetti Grana Padano.

 

INSPECTOR. Incredible! They really know their cheeses!

 

MRS BRISKET. Thank you, Inspector. We do, here at the

Brisket Blastburn Academy for Girls, concentrate on the

three R’s. Reading, Writing and Really tasty snacks.

                  An absolute delight! – the Stage review of the première says it all:

  “The Wolves of Willoughby Chase has never been adapted for the stage before, according to Forest Forge artistic director Kirstie Davis, and I can’t think why not.
Joan Aiken’s children’s classic about two young girls and a goose-boy fighting for survival against howling wolves and grim governesses in a bleak snowy landscape is a gift for any company as family entertainment.
Russ Tunney’s script (the show is a collaboration with the Nuffield Theatre where Tunney is associatedirector) blends melodrama, comedy, adventure and a little spookiness interwoven with songs and dances. Into the mix goes Rebecca Applin’s atmospheric music and Helen Stewart’s sloping set of panelled walls and jagged floorboards, plus Forest Forge’s trademarks of multi-function set and actors nipping in and out of costume and character at high speed. Davis weaves it all into a glorious snuggle down and enjoy Christmas present of a production that will charm children and adults alike. As the young heroines, Clare Fraenkel’s bright-eyed, feisty Bonnie and Julie Rose Smith’s timid Sylvia are enchanting without being irritating – which says a lot. Michael Cole,Michael Magnet and Thomas Gilbey play everyone else from sinister Miss Slighcarp and her shifty sidekick to trusty Simon and coarse Mrs Brisket, with Cole’s wretched workhouse girl a particular gem.
Wonderful stuff – worth wrapping up warm and turning out on a freezing night for.”

Lesley Bates, The Stage

And it has wolves of course….!

*****