This month marks the 21st anniversary of highly acclaimed theatre company Tall Stories, created following a chance meeting between its co-founders and artistic directors, Toby Mitchell and Olivia Jacobs. 

“Tall Stories came to be when I was producing a show on my own,” explains Toby. “I went to deliver some flyers to Soho Theatre. I bumped into Olivia there, we got talking and stayed in touch. We decided to set up a company, which wasn’t called Tall Stories at the time, and went to the Fringe. We got reviewed and were regarded as a company to watch.

“When we returned to the Fringe the following year, we came up with the name Tall Stories, as we thought it summed up what we aimed to do. I directed one show and Olivia the other. Olivia did a show based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince And Other Stories, and I did Alice In Wonderland.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing, and neither of those shows were particularly aimed at children. They were just ones that we wanted to do, but because they were based around childhood favourites, families were our main audience. They told us how lovely it was to find work that didn’t talk down to their kids. We wouldn’t even have considered talking down to our audience - we were just telling good stories - but that’s been our touchstone ever since.”

Toby firmly believes this approach has been a major factor in Tall Stories’ success: “We don’t patronise the younger people in the audience, and we don’t make it too silly for the older people. We pride ourselves on making the kind of theatre that we ourselves would like to watch. There are those big and silly shows that parents enjoy on a certain level but not entirely. That’s not what we do. We try to create something where everyone has a wonderful experience, and I think that’s why audiences keep coming back to our shows again and again.

“High points are when audiences really get the show, or when a parent comes up to you and says their child won’t sit still for longer than 10 minutes in front of the television, but that they’ve been absolutely motionless for an hour watching us. Moments like that make me very proud, but are also understandable because we’re talking directly to the audience and taking them seriously, which a lot of children’s television doesn’t do.” 

A pinch of good luck, or maybe just sound  intuition, also helped Tall Stories become   established: “I had a day job in the early years of Tall Stories. I was working for Macmillan Children’s Books, and I read The Gruffalo just before it was published. We were looking for a show for a younger age group. We thought the Gruffalo was just a lovely story, so we decided to put that on stage. 

“Of course, at the time it was an unknown book. Julia Donaldson was also unknown, so it was fairly easy to negotiate the rights. Then, while we had it in rehearsals, it won a major book prize - which was handy, to say the least! We were wowed by the response to The Gruffalo, and from there it snowballed.”

The reaction to the show at the Edinburgh Fringe was one of many highlights for Toby during Tall Stories’ 21 years.

“I picked up a copy of The Scotsman’s Fringe pull-out to find the review, and there was a full-page photograph of our Gruffalo on the front cover with a five-star review inside. So, it’s moments like that, when we realised we were doing things that people were actually enjoying, that really stand out in our journey.”
Seventeen years on, Tall Stories are still reimagining The Gruffalo every time they bring it back to the stage.

“Now a lot of the audiences are coming because they know the animation rather than the book. We used to have two narrators and a female actor playing mouse. That worked when people only knew the book. Since the animation, we got the occasional complaint saying that the animals didn’t look convincing because our costumes were a little more suggestive of animals than full costumes. So, we went back to the structure of the show, made it have three narrators at the start and then turned one of them into mouse on-stage in front of the audience. 

“This was just gently saying to the audience that they needed to use their imaginations for the show; part of the fun of a storytelling show is that we don’t give it all to them on a plate. They have to get involved for it to be believable. It’s so rare to get a complaint about our shows now, which is wonderful. It’s great that the show is still 80% the same as it was 17 years ago, when it first went on stage. It’s just a case of making sure we reinvent enough of it to keep it relevant and modern, so that people keep on coming.” 
Tall Stories are often approached to adapt children’s picture books into theatre productions.

“Whatever themes can be plucked out of a story always create resonances if it’s a strong story. We’re quite well known as book adapters, and that’s despite the fact that only a third of our shows are based on picture books. The other two-thirds are popular fairytales or things we’ve made up ourselves. We do turn down people if their book hasn’t got a strong enough plot.”

Sometimes, however, extra layers can be added to the story to make it suitable for the stage. 

“The way we made it work with The Snail And The Whale was to tell the story through the eyes of a young girl and her father, who’s in the navy. So in the story, the snail wants to go on a trip around the world, so hitches a ride on the tail of a whale. This reflects how the girl would rather be with her dad than stuck in her bedroom, so there’s a process where we added emotional resonance to that story. In that case, there was a way for us to make it work on stage, but the power of the story always has to come first when we make our shows.

“The Snail And The Whale is another Julia Donaldson title, but audiences get something else from Tall Stories that they also enjoy. We make it clear on all our publicity material that there is this extra story added on top of the Julia Donaldson one, and that we’ve obviously consulted Julia about it and that she’s happy with it. That’s a definite favourite - a well-loved story in a fresh way.”

Luckily for Midlanders, two more of Toby’s all-time favourite Tall Stories productions are coming to the region very soon...

“Wilde Creatures has four acting-musicians who’re extremely talented and manage to, with our help, bring Oscar Wilde’s stories to life in a very imaginative and modern way. There’s also Emily Brown And The Thing (see pages 32/33), a really lovely story about a child who’s scared of the dark at bedtime and the way she overcomes it. 

“With all my favourites, there’s a seamlessness to them; although the stories are complex and there are lots of scene changes and props, we make it flow over that hour so that it doesn’t seem clunky. But that doesn’t mean it’s simple! We look like swans from the front, but you don’t realise how much furious paddling is going on behind the scenes!

“For our 21st birthday, we took Wilde Creatures and the premier of The Canterville Ghost to the Fringe. Wilde Creatures had a run in London last Christmas because there was a big Oscar Wilde season. The Canterville Ghost uses the same cast as Wilde Creatures. We’ve set it as a grown-ups’ show, but we’ve set the minimum age guide at 12-plus, so it’s still something that caters for lots of people. 

“We did a preview in London a few weeks before the Fringe, to what we thought was going to be a very tough crowd of South London school kids. Again, I think because we took them seriously, they were completely on board. It was joyous to watch because we thought they were going to be quite a demanding audience - and actually they were a demanding audience, but what they were demanding was a good story. So that’s the aim for our 21st birthday - to do a more grown-up show, seeing as we’re hitting ‘proper’ adulthood. Then we’re hoping that the two shows will tour together.”

Toby is optimistic about the future of Tall Stories. 

“The aim is to continue to give audiences shows that they’re enjoying. The challenge for the future is to get more shows in, to keep on creating by seeing if there are any other great picture books out there, or any other stories we want to make up ourselves, and to always be reinventing. Here’s to the next 21 years!” 


For more information and to find out when the next Tall Stories production is coming to a theatre near you, visit tallstories.org.uk