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Interview with David Walliams & The First Hippo on the Moon

The Other Richard.

Not many people in 2003 would have thought that the tall, well-dressed individual on their TV screens shouting “Bitty!” at the top of his lungs would go on to be one of Britain’s most successful children’s authors. One suspects veteran actress Geraldine James has only recently recovered from the regular assaults on her cleavage. David Walliams has (at least for the moment) set aside his man-child impersonations, however, and taken to writing for actual kids – to great success. Now much-celebrated theatre company Les Petits Theatre adapts his wild 2014 picture book The First Hippo On The Moon touring theatres this winter and spring. It’s

The reinvention of David Walliams has been something of a fairytale. The London-born comedian published his first book—The Boy In The Dress—back in 2008. The story of a young child learning to understand his parents’ divorce and a burgeoning desire to cross-dress, the touching adventure was illustrated by much-loved artist Quentin Blake and was adapted for a BBC television-film. Since then Walliams has published thirteen children’s books.
 
The First Hippo On The Moon, the writer-comedian’s second picture book, tells the story of Sheila, a hippo aiming to win the animal kingdom’s space race to the moon. Walliams drew inspiration for the idea from both his historical interest and his renowned anarchic imagination. “I have always been fascinated with the space race of the 1960s and wanted to do a spoof on that” the forty-five year old commented. “I like the idea of hippos going to the moon as they are the animals least likely to.”

The First Hippo on the Moon on stage. The Other Richard.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard.
 
The book’s voyage into the bizarre fits neatly alongside the work of its adaptors for the stage, Les Petits Theatre. Known for dramatic designs and immersive performances, the production company’s previous stage shows include an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and the wacky Captain Flynn and The Pirate Dinosaurs. Walliams chose the group especially for The First Hippo. “I have loved their work for many years so jumped at the chance to work with them. The book is full of humour and I know that they are the perfect choice of theatre company to bring that out as their shows are so irreverent and funny.”
 
The feeling was mutual. Writer for Les Petits Theatre Oliver Lansley noted, “We were really keen to work on one of David Walliams’ books as we feel we share the same anarchic sensibilities. He doesn't patronise children which is very refreshing and he's not afraid to be challenging or a bit dark.” Director and puppet-maker Finn Caldwell for the company added, “the story also lends itself to puppetry and lays out certain visual challenges that we were excited about solving in a theatre production.”
 
Walliams’ stories have always strived for the bright and colourful, The First Hippo illustrated by veteran artist Tony Ross. The book’s theatrical cousin is no less exotic. With two human-sized hippos, an ostrich, a gorilla, and a particularly large giraffe, this is an on-stage journey into the jungle as well as to the moon. “Lots of our audience will come to see the show wanting to see and recognise characters from the book of The First Hippo on the Moon,” admitted Caldwell. “We hope we've captured the flavour of Tony's world and characters whilst at the same time throwing in a good pinch of natural anatomy and just a smidge of cartoon logic.” The production utilises both costumed actors (including Dominic Allen and Rosie Nicholls) and “contact” puppets. This style of theatrical puppetry has been used by the likes of hit-show Warhorse and has the performers in close contact with the shapes they manipulate, creating fluid, energetic movement.

The First Hippo on the Moon on stage. The Other Richard.
Photo Credit: The Other Richard.
 
Walliams described the show’s message as one of optimism and cooperation. “Whoever you are you should dream big, just like Sheila the hippo. Plus if you work together as a team, then you can achieve so much more.” The actor also had advice for any looking to follow in his footsteps and become a writer. “I think it’s important you write a story you would like to read. If you like funny stories write a funny story, if you like scary ones write a scary one. You can never guess what it is people want to read, so it is best you write something for yourself.”
 
The First Hippo’s protagonist Sheila may have gone to the moon. Walliams’ dreams, however, go even further. He joked in closing the interview, “I would like to go to Mars. You can forget the books and the comedy shows: I feel I would definitely be remembered if I was the first person to go there!”
 
The First Hippo on the Moon is currently touring the UK, performing in the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, between the 29 January – 1 February. For a full list of performances, see online.
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