Fringe preview: Malcolm and Julia Donaldson – Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts
A former Children's Laureate and creator of The Gruffalo returns to the Fringe
This article is from 2015.
Malcolm and Julia Donaldson are back in Edinburgh but with a whole new approach to entertaining children. We hear how they whittled down their extensive back catalogue for this year's show
For some people it's a springboard to greater things, but by the time Julia Donaldson made her Fringe debut in 2006, she was already a household name. That is if your household includes young children intimately acquainted with Donaldson's oeuvre, in particular a certain wart-nosed beast known as the Gruffalo.
At that time, Julia and husband Malcolm had a rather relaxed approach to bringing her extensive bibliography and songbook to life. 'Looking back now, what we were doing feels quite amateurish,' says Julia. 'Since then, we've done so many shows in so many theatres and have become a lot more professional. But it was lovely to have that freedom; we would change the show from one thing to another if we got fed up with it, and we really enjoyed it.'
Enjoyable though it was, the couple started to hanker after something more structured and, crucially, an outside eye to visualise a new way of transferring her literary creations from page to stage. Now they're back at the Fringe, that's exactly what they've done. 'For a long time, we've been thinking it would be lovely to have some direction,' says Julia. 'There's something very enjoyable about being stretched and re-thinking how you do things. Director Peta Maurice came to see our show, and said that while it's clearly an author-led show – and she wanted to keep it that way – she had lots of things in mind.'
Maurice's plans for the Donaldsons' Underbelly show include a library set where book troughs turn into boats, shelves swivel round to reveal new locations, and puppets play the ever-increasing animals in her popular A Squash and a Squeeze. Aimed at children aged 4–10, the show will feature picture book favourites such as Jack and the Flumflum Tree, What the Ladybird Heard, The Gruffalo and Zog.
Whittling the titles down from an original shortlist of 30 wasn't easy, but Malcolm was on-hand during the decision-making process. 'Julia always has the final say, as is only right because she wrote the books,' he says. 'But I do chip in and we have long arguments about it; they're never acrimonious, just quite extended. And I'm very pleased with what we've chosen.'
A paediatrician by trade, Malcolm has been joining Julia on stage ever since The Gruffalo was first published in 1999. For him, it's a chance to unleash a different side to his personality. 'I've got one career as a doctor and another as Julia's sidekick, and they're wonderfully complementary because I've always been a bit of a clown; but you can't be a clown if you're a doctor. So being able to act, sing and play my guitar is a wonderful antidote to medicine. But then I also love having my own area of interest, and not just being Julia Donaldson's husband.'
Keeping it in the family, Julia's sister Mary will also appear in the show, along with two young actors, one of whom is the daughter of an old university pal. A bigger cast, bigger set and, it would seem, bigger laughs. 'Working with Peta has taken us to a completely new level,' says Malcolm. 'I'm absolutely blown away by it. We did a run-through recently and our designer and puppeteer were roaring with laughter; so we've got to be doing something right.'
Gruffalos, Ladybirds and Other Beasts: With Julia Donaldson, Underbelly, George Square, 0844 545 8252, 8–31 Aug (not 19), 11.30am, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £6.