WHEN Tall Stories theatre company decided to adapt The Snail and the Whale for the stage, they were faced with a dilemma: how on earth do you present a show when the two main characters are – yes, you guessed it – a snail and a whale.
The story tells of a tiny snail who longs to see the world, so she hitches a lift on the tail of a humpback whale. Together they go on an amazing journey, seeing sharks and penguins, volcanoes and icebergs. But then disaster strikes – the whale is beached in a bay. Can the snail save the day?
The charming children's book was written by Julia Donaldson and illustrated by Axel Scheffler, who brought us The Gruffalo and Room on the Broom – both of which have been successfully adapted by the theatre group and played to much success in Exeter.
This production, however, was an altogether more awkward proposition.
In search of help, the company turned to the founders of Storybook Soldiers, Rosemary Meeke MBE and Kirsty Alderson. Rosemary and Kirsty are both army wives and run Storybook Soldiers from an army base at Tidworth on Salisbury Plain.
The two women set up Storybook Soldiers in 2007 so that servicemen and women deployed on operations around the world can record a CD of themselves reading a story for their children back home. In the space of five years, they have produced around 6,000 CDs.
Rosemary explained how it works: "The recording is usually done before the soldiers are deployed, although it can also be done while they are away.
"In 2007, soldiers were in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it was very relevant. They are usually sent on six-month deployments and this is quite hard for the children.
"We thought that by getting their fathers – and occasionally their mothers – to record a story, it would bridge the gap. The children can listen to the story in bed at night, or in the car – whenever they like.
"It has a 'hello' at the start and a 'goodnight' at the end, and we have a team of about a dozen wonderful volunteers who do the editing and add music and sound effects."
The stories may only take 10 or 15 minutes to read, but they take as long as three hours to edit – so the team of volunteers is being kept very busy.
The three favourite books are The Gruffalo, The Snail and the Whale and Room on the Broom. So, when faced with the task of producing The Snail and the Whale as a stage show, Tall Stories' joint artistic director Toby Mitchell decided to pick Rosemary and Kirsty's brains.
"It was difficult to do it in a way which worked on the stage," said Rosemary. "So Toby came down with the cast and we chatted about what we do for Storybook Soldiers and we discussed possible solutions.
"On stage, the play becomes a 'story within a story', starting with a father and his daughter playing their favourite story games together before he has to leave to go away to sea. She is upset, wanting to go with him but unable to.
A few days later, the postman delivers an envelope to her which contains a disk from her father. She recognises her father's voice on the disk, starting with a message and then retelling their favourite story for her to listen to.
"The little girl talks back to him, as children do, and the game continues in a way which reflects the story in the book and involves lots of audience participation. But it also brings in this link between a father who is away and his daughter who is thousands of miles away back home."
Once they had put it all together, Tall Stories performed a the show at the garrison on Salisbury Plain, as Rosemary explained: "They came and put the show on here for about 350 children, just after a deployment to Afghanistan earlier this year. The children loved it – it is such fun."
Created in Tall Stories' unique style, the production mixes imaginative storytelling, lots of laughs and new music played live on stage – in a show for everyone aged four years and over.
It has received rave reviews everywhere it has played this year and will end its international tour at the Exeter Northcott, with a run from December 12 to 30.
Ticket details on 01392 493493 or visit: www.exeternorthcott.co.uk
There will be two post-show events when there is a chance to meet the cast and talk about the production. These will take place after the afternoon shows on Tuesday, December 18, and Friday, December 28.