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Staffordshire’s New Vic Theatre has joined forces with Upswing contemporary circus company and London’s Unicorn Theatre to present an innovative stage version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess And The Pea. The play promises to be a circus spectacle that provides fun for all ages - and features a huge pile of mattresses! What’s On spoke to New Vic Artistic Director Theresa Heskins, who has adapted and co-directed the show, to find out more...

Rehearsals are up and running for The Princess And The Pea at London’s Unicorn Theatre, before it transfers to the New Vic on Wednesday 19 June. What’s behind the decision to create this show, Theresa? 
It was the artistic director here at the Unicorn, actually, who asked me and Upswing’s Vicki Dela Amedume to think about a version of The Princess And The Pea, Hans Christian Andersen’s short story. Vicki’s a circus director and I love comedy, so immediately we thought we wanted to do something that’s a piece of circus slapstick; really funny, really full of circus and energy, really engaging, and aimed at a very wide audience, from very little ones right up to adults who like a laugh - and who doesn’t? 

What’s your history in terms of working with Upswing and the Unicorn?
It’s our first time working with the Unicorn. They’re the country’s leading theatre for children and young people, and the New Vic’s programme of work for children and young people is really significant and important to us - and to hundreds of thousands of young people in the area - so it’s wonderful working with them. 
Upswing we’ve been working with for about 12 years, bringing circus to the New Vic and to New Vic audiences, most recently with Astley’s Astounding Adventures, which was incredibly popular and breathtaking and wonderful. The New Vic’s actually engaged in a partnership with Upswing to bring circus to the Potteries, and that means creating shows, circus performance, community events, education and training.

Astley’s Astounding Adventures was a big hit - is there pressure to follow on from last year’s triumph?
There always is when you do something that’s been successful. Our last Hans Christian Andersen was a version of The Snow Queen, at Christmas a few years ago. That was really popular, and it won the UK Theatre Award for Best Show for Children & Young People. We’ve got pressure on all sides, for our track record with Hans Christian Andersen and with Astley’s Astounding Adventures, and all sorts of other things.
When you’re making work for young people, I think that’s a huge responsibility too. You want the whole family to come and have a wonderful time, and you’re making an impact that a child’s probably going to remember for the rest of their lives. We do remember those early theatre experiences more than any others. 

Why do you think circus has been such a big hit in Stoke?
We are quite unique, I think. Because the inventor of the modern circus, Phillip Astley, came from Newcastle-under-Lyme, it’s in our bones. He’s our Shakespeare, really. Circus has a special importance in our area. 
You can go to the circus in any country and understand it. It’s a kind of international artform that goes beyond language and crosses all age ranges. 
The Princess And The Pea actually has no words in it, so it’s as accessible as possible to as wide an audience as possible, in that true circus form.
What makes Hans Christian Andersen’s stories work so well when adapted for the stage?
There’s something very strong about his concepts - the mattress tower is a really strong image. Thinking about The Snow Queen, the sense of all that ice and snow and frost is very evocative. The Little Mermaid is one of his, and that sense of the world under the sea makes such a brilliant theatrical environment. I suppose they’ve all also got quite a lot of action, and really enticing stories that are quite poignant and quite funny at the same time.

How do you make sure that your shows have a broad appeal?
We sort of always make them with the family in mind, because usually the way young people are coming to the theatre is within quite a wide family group - often a group with three or four generations coming along together. Everybody primarily wants the children to enjoy it; they want to make sure that they’re having a lovely time, but we want them all to enjoy it. 
I think fundamentally it comes down to making sure that the theatre-making is very sophisticated. There’s nothing simple about the approach we take. The soundtrack is incredibly complicated - there’s this raft of really detailed sound effects that need a lot of skill to deliver. The circus performers are doing very complicated skills that they’re learning from the ground up in some instances. Everything about it - the design and lighting and everything - is very sophisticated, but the storytelling is fast and energetic and full of action. I think that’s what keeps young people engaged. Slapstick humour of the Laurel & Hardy type has huge appeal across the generations.

Is it a modern interpretation of the story?
It’s a bit of a remix, but we’re not setting it in modern times - it’s set in fairytale land. It’s interesting - the original story is one paragraph long. It’s an elevator pitch rather than a story! 
The story we have in mind - the princess is trying to get a good night’s sleep and is so sensitive that she can’t sleep, and there’s a pea under the bed - that’s all it is. 
We’ve had a brilliant experience here at the Unicorn, where for six weeks before rehearsal started, every Saturday a group of young people and their families came in, and we worked with them to get a sense of what the story might be from their point of view; what music they like, what makes them laugh… One of the things we found all of them talked about, the children and the parents, was the difficulty of getting to sleep at night even without a pea under the bed. It feels as though it’s a very important part of every parent and child’s life - the bedtime stories or the bedtime songs.  

What are you looking forward to most about the production?
So much! I’m particularly looking forward to seeing the audience. We had a small group of young people in on Saturday that we’ve been working with, who saw some of it, had a sneak preview and told us what they thought. 
I suppose the thing that’s been really interesting is that, in drawings and in storybooks, a mattress tower with a person sleeping on the top of it is a really easy thing. When you try to build a tower of 20 mattresses and put a performer on top of it, it’s very different!
If they’re covered in slippy fabrics, the mattresses fall off, taking the performer with them. How do you get up a mattress tower? Do you jump up, do you climb up, what do you do to get up there? And how do we keep it still? It’s quite an engineering miracle that had to be created.

By Jessica Clixby

The Princess And The Pea shows at New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, from Wednesday 19 until Saturday 29 June