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David Wood: ‘It worries me that fewer schools take kids to theatre now’

Playwright David Wood. Photo: Jill Furmanovsky
Playwright David Wood. Photo: Jill Furmanovsky

There was never any doubt in David Wood’s mind that he wanted a career in the entertainment industry. He caught the bug in infancy from watching Whirligig on television in the 1950s and, 65 years later, he looks fondly back on a long career as actor, storyteller, magician, musician, playwright, producer, director… the list goes on. His full CV takes up a side and a half of closely typed A4 paper.

cv David WoodWood looks keenly forward too. A new tour of his acclaimed Goodnight Mister Tom, starring David Troughton, will open in the West End this Christmas, and there’s another major project that he isn’t yet ready to talk about openly. I detect an excited, determined glint in his eye.

So how did it all start, once he’d made up his mind that he was headed for a life on or near the boards? He settles back in his seat and begins to unravel his life story.

Key influences from his early life include an enlightened piano teacher who let him play and sing popular songs rather than restricting him to classical repertoire; an inspirational and supportive English teacher at Chichester Boys Grammar (who also taught Adrian Noble and Howard Brenton) and a headmaster who suggested he attend a local annual youth drama week: “Absolutely the best week of my life – ever”.

He took part in talent competitions (and sometimes won), admired summer concert parties at Bognor, performed magic tricks at children’s parties and set up a cabaret duo with a friend. At the same time there was the excitement of Chichester Festival Theatre opening in 1962 and attracting top names such as Laurence Olivier to play Othello. Wood chuckles that he is the only person in the theatre’s 50-year history to have worked there as an actor, playwright, director and extra (in 1963, thanks to the influence of that English teacher).

Scene from Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, earlier this year. Photo: Robert Day
Scene from Wood’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, earlier this year. Photo: Robert Day

Then came three years at Oxford and the acquisition of lots of good contacts. Perhaps tellingly, we don’t discuss his actual degree. “It was an extraordinarily rich time. I was a contemporary of Michael Palin, Diana Quick, Maria Aitken, Nigel Rees and many more. More than 30 of us went on into performing arts industries.”

There were lots of plays and regular gigs in London – which were strictly against Oxford rules – with a cabaret group that included the musician John Gould, who went on to be Wood’s arranger for many years. All good training I venture, even if he wasn’t fully aware of what he was doing?

“Oh, I knew perfectly well what I was doing,” he chuckles. “I didn’t get much curriculum work done but I did everything I could to develop the skills I knew I was going to need and use.” He remembers, for example, being in a student show called Hang Down Your Head and Die – an anti-capital punishment polemic – in 1964. Wood was 20 and, astonishingly for a student show, it transferred to London and received rave reviews from critics, including Bernard Levin. “Oh yes, we were on a high,” he grins.

Alan Atkins (Tiger) and Abbey Norman in The Tiger Who Came to Tea at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, in 2011. The show returns to the West End next month. Photo: Alastair Muir
Alan Atkins (Tiger) and Abbey Norman in The Tiger Who Came to Tea at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, in 2011. The show returns to the West End next month. Photo: Alastair Muir

The Owl and the Pussycat Went to See… was Wood’s first children’s show, co-written with his first wife, Sheila Ruskin, with whom he had been at Oxford (“She played Cordelia to my Fool in Lear – the two roles experts think were doubled in Shakespeare’s day”) and it was like “a dream come true” when Samuel French published it. Then came Whirligig, Wood’s own company, which produced his shows for 25 years. He has, for example, eight Roald Dahl adaptations under his belt; they still crop up regularly all over the country and at least three are being staged this Christmas. He has also had great success with adaptations of other children’s novels such as Babe, Tom’s Midnight Garden and, of course, The Tiger Who Came to Tea, based on the much-loved book by Judith Kerr – “a really wonderful woman,” says Wood.

Q&A David WoodTiger has toured all over the world, in places as diverse as Shanghai, Beijing, Australia and the Middle East, as well as Scotland and Ireland. It is back in the West End this Christmas after its autumn tour. His CV includes about 80 plays, “none written on spec,” he tells me firmly and proudly.

Things have changed over the years. “We’ve seen a huge explosion in work for under-fives in the last 10 years, and that’s great. When I began we wouldn’t have dreamed of trying to do theatre for pre-schoolers. But these children now come mostly with their parents, the ones who can afford it,” says Wood, who is chairman of charity Action for Children’s Arts and a vigorous campaigner to get work for children taken seriously and funded properly. “But it’s much harder to attract primary school groups than it used to be, and that’s very worrying because it was teachers who used to bring those children who wouldn’t otherwise have been taken to the theatre,” he says.

Wood blames this change on the “tougher” school curriculum and perceptions about how school time and money should be spent. He laments the paradox that while children’s theatre is expanding, it is now a lot less inclusive than it used to be and should be.

He also notes there remains a general sense that children’s theatre is easier to do than adult drama, when in fact it’s harder because your audience is not likely to be polite or tolerant if you get it wrong. “Actors who do a lot of children’s work are still asked when they’re going to progress to adult theatre,” he says, ruefully quoting Philip Pullman, who asks such enquirers whether they’d want to know when he was going to turn to adult medicine if told he were a paediatrician.

“And we need – for all sorts of reason that I applaud – to keep ticket prices down for children’s work, although production values, and therefore costs, are as high as for adult shows.” It is those same economics that have driven cast sizes down. “We used to be able to stage children’s shows with casts of up to 12. Now four or five is the norm and often fewer,” he says, adding this is potentially restrictive artistically. “My show The Owl and the Pussycat had a cast of 12. Imagine that now. By the time we got to The Gingerbread Man in the 1970s it was six. Tiger has three,” he says.

Then there’s the vexed question of what shows to offer children, teachers and families to attract them. “It’s shows based on already very familiar book titles that bring people in,” he says. “So we need to keep producing those. On the other hand, we don’t want that to be all we do but it’s difficult to get producers to consider original work.”

And so I leave this cheerful, thoughtful man, still as focused on creating interesting work as when he made and performed in a puppet theatre in the garden when he was only 10. He’s off to a press night at London’s Park Theatre – a night off, as it were, but he’s busy planning further outings for his one-man show, David Wood’s Storytime – the Gingerbread Man, which did well at Greenwich Theatre in August. He’s also looking forward to becoming a first-time grandfather (he has two daughters with his wife, former actor Jacqueline Stanbury) this autumn. But I suspect that won’t stop the workflow.

Goodnight Mister Tom runs at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, from December 11 to February 20, 2016
The Tiger Who Came to Tea is at the Lyric Theatre, London, from November 25 to January 10, 2016

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