JULIA Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Zog And The Flying Doctors swoops in on York Theatre Royal in Freckle Productions and Rose Theatre’s world premiere tour on June 24 and June 25.
Dragon Zog, super-keen student turned air-ambulance, lands with a crash-bang-thump in a rhyming story for children aged three upwards. Zog and his Flying Doctor crew, Princess Pearl and Sir Gadabout, must tend to a sunburnt mermaid, a unicorn with one too many horns and a lion with the flu.
Alas, Pearl’s uncle, the King, has other ideas as to whether princesses should be doctors, and soon she is locked up in the castle, in a crown and silly frilly dress once more.
However, with help from friends and half a pound of cheese, can Pearl make her uncle better and prove princesses can be doctors too?
Freckle Productions reunites the creative team behind Zog, Emma Kilbey and Joe Stilgoe, for this modern take on a classic fairytale.
Where did Julia Donaldson’s inspiration for Zog come from? “Well, that one was quite unusual, in that the initial idea didn’t come from me. My editor said to me, ‘it would be lovely to have a story about a dragon’, so I started thinking about it and the name ‘Madam Dragon’ came into my head, which I thought had a nice sound.
“And then I thought, ‘what could Madame Dragon do, who could she be?’. I came up with various ideas and a schoolteacher was one of them, so I took it from there. Originally it was going to be about a knight and a dragon, but it ended up being about a Princess and a dragon – the story came to me bit by bit”.
Julia’s husband, Malcolm, who is a doctor, had some input here. “When I was planning the story, I knew that Zog would keep meeting the Princess, and originally I was going to have them play together and toast marshmallows,” she recalls. “Malcolm said, ‘that’s a bit soppy, couldn’t it be something with a bit more oomph?’. And then I came up with the doctor angle”.
Zog is far from the first animal to star in one of Julia’s stories. Whether a cat in Tabby McTat, a fish in Tiddler or the iconic Gruffalo, animals are regularly Julia’s most memorable creations. “It’s often used as a convention – like in Aesop’s Fables, where the animals aren’t really animals; they represent a quality or a characteristic,” she says.
“I also think it would be far more boring for the reader if Mouse in The Gruffalo was just a small but clever person, or The Gruffalo itself was a big, scary but rather stupid person. Or, in The Snail And The Whale, if the Whale was just a big person and the Snail a little person; I think you need animals to represent the qualities”.
One enduring facet of Julia’s stories is her partnership with German illustrator and animator Axel Scheffler, who has brought so many of her characters to life. How does this collaboration work? “It’s always through the editor,” Julia reveals.
“I never exchange a word with Axel about the pictures until my editor shows him the book – and then I have a nail-biting moment, wondering if he likes it and wants to do it. Then he’ll do some character sketches which I’ll look at.
“Sometimes, after he’s created sketches for every picture, I’ll think ‘oh hang on, I’m going to change that little bit of text, because I like what he’s done with that’.”
When Julia has had the characters in her head for so long, what happens if the illustrations turn out to be different to what she imagined? “I always say it’s like going on holiday: you’ve got an idea in your head of how it’s going to be, and then it’s always totally different. But once you’re there and enjoying it, you just forget what was in your head before,” she says.
“Also, I usually know when I’m writing something whether I want Axel to work on it – in which case I’ve got his style in my head as I’m working. It doesn’t influence the storyline, but it will influence how I picture the characters. So, I’m usually not surprised when I see Axel’s interpretation.”
Many of Julia’s books have been adapted for film or theatre, where they are reimagined all over again. “For me, it’s like an extension of working with an illustrator,” she says.
“Handing it over to a theatre company or film company, you know it’s going to change a bit; the end product will be a blend of my words and their artistic vision. And they do usually consult me and tell me what they’ve got in mind.”
Stage adaptations of Julia and Axel’s books, from Zog to Stick Man, are often a child’s first experience of live theatre, much to Julia’s delight. “I remember going to see The Nutcracker when I was a child and I found the whole thing completely magical. I can still remember how I felt when the curtain went up,” Julia says.
“I suppose in a way it’s the same thing that a book gives you, in that while you’re reading or watching, you believe in a different reality. And if it’s a good show, parents love to see that their children – even very young ones – can just be transfixed by it.”
Freckle Productions and Rose Theatre present Zog And The Flying Doctors, York Theatre Royal, June 24, 4.30pm; June 25, 11am, 2pm and 4.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.