David Walliams makes a big stink
He's a millionaire comic, TV presenter and charity swimmer of the Thames and the Channel. But David Walliams is also the author of Mr Stink, a successful children's book that has now been turned into a 'scratch'n'sniff' stage show. SIMON PARKIN reports.
It has been many spectacles in its long history, but Norwich Theatre Royal will experience a first — a stage musical that comes with a 'scratch'n'sniff' card.
Audiences may be used to the smell of greasepaint but not so used to scratching to unleash the pong of a particu-larly smelly lead character.
The genuine theatrical first comes as the stage version of Mr Stink, the hit children's book written by Little Britain star turned charity swimmer extraordinaire David Walliams, arrives to coincide with the half-term holidays.
Mr Stink tells the story of Chloe who doesn't enjoy school and has few friends until she meets the local tramp. Christening him Mr Stink, the pair become good friends but their bond is threatened when the local MP decides to rid the streets of the homeless.
Worried about losing her only friend, Chloe finds him a hiding place but could it be too late and is there more to him than meets the eye?
The unique scratch'n'sniff element of the show was Walliams own idea, he explains. 'I felt it would be terrific fun to create this interactive element. I thought, 'If I were a kid, I'd love to go to this show, and be told 'Now scratch and sniff Number 2' and get this disgusting smell from it.'
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'Children are restless. They don't want to sit in complete silence for the entire show. They want to be involved, to be frightened and to have a laugh. They want to feel part of the show. Even if you've read the book, scratch'n'sniff offers something a bit different. It's a great way of getting children involved. They can rest assured all the smells will be horrible!'
David admits he was flattered when approached about the idea of adapting his book for the stage 'It's really excit-ing to think that a book you've written will have another life. What could be better?'
'It lends itself very well to that,' he adds. 'In musicals the characters are forever articulating their emotions. Mr Stink is a book about relationships changing and people growing emotionally, so it's very well suited to a musical treatment.
'Sometimes people feel things so strongly that saying the words is not enough – they have to break into song. That's a great way of understanding musical productions.'
And with kids so enamoured with the pong-powered tales of Mr Stink, the shows in any form were likely to draw loyal young audiences.
'I put a child at the centre of the story, and I try to reflect what it is really like to be that age. A lot of children's books are about wish fulfilment – children as superheroes and spies. But I show children as powerless – as you are as a child. When you're very young, you don't get to choose many things — your house, say, or your school. You're in that situation, and there's not a lot you can do about it.
'In this story, the central character Chloe transforms her family through her friendship with a tramp. In that way, the most powerless person in her family becomes the most powerful.'
Why does he think this story translates so well to the stage? 'Like a lot of children's books, it contains very vivid characters. They are ripe for the theatre because they're so bold. They leap off the page. They're almost like car-toon characters who really suit being on stage — unlike more subtle characters who might get lost in the theatre.
'When Matt [Lucas] and I worked in the theatre on Little Britain Live, the characters almost worked better there than they did on TV because they were so over the top. In the same way, this story feels instantly dramatic.'
The story leads to something of a message many parents would endorse, that of tolerance and understanding the homeless. Mr Stink, the local tramp, is the only person who is nice to Chloe — even though her mum is an aspir-ing MP with plans to clear the streets of homeless.
'I hope children learn to accept people who are different and learn that everyone has a story to tell. It's quite a simple message – that we should not judge people by how they look or, in this case, smell.
'When you live in London, it's very easy to see someone on the street and think, 'Oh, there's another homeless person' and to forget everyone has a unique story to tell about why they're there. Some people have been abused, others have run away from home. You can get desensitised because you see so many homeless people, and one way of dealing with it is just to walk on by.
'The book is ultimately about Chloe's courage to stop and talk to this homeless person. I hope children will relate to that. In the end, Mr Stink encourages her to fulfil her dreams. It's the story of a very unlikely friendship.'
? Mr Stink is at Norwich Theatre Royal, October 27-28 and October 30, �14-�5.50, under-3s free, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk