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With the return of War Horse at the National Theatre, Oliver Nicholas takes a longer look at the play together with the book that inspired it and explores what else is going on in theatres over the coming months that has been stimulated by children's literature

War Horse

The book:

Michael Morpurgo’s much loved book tells the story of Joey, a beautiful red bay horse. Joey is sold as a foal to a drunken farmer whose son, Albert, trains the horse to pull the plough. At the start of the First World War, Albert’s beloved horse is sold to the army by his father who is desperate for money. Joey leads a British cavalry charge towards the machine guns of the enemy, is captured by the Germans and, after ending up wounded and wandering through no-man’s land, is eventually looked after by a French girl and her father. The story also follows Albert who sets out to find and save the horse he loves. Through the varied experiences of the horse, Morpurgo brings alive the horror and atrocities of war and at the same time has truly created a book that both enthrals the reader and gives a wonderful insight into the First World War.

The play:

For those who read and loved this book, it would have seemed like an impossible task for any theatre company to do justice to Morpurgo’s book. They were proved wrong in 2007 when the Handspring Puppet Company created magnificent translucent wooden structures whose mobility and fluid movement managed to capture the very essence of the horse at the centre of this story. The National Theatre has brought the play back to its stage and is taking bookings until 24th January. I urge everyone to take their children.

Handa’s Surprise (age 0-6)

The book:

This book by Eileen Browne tells the story of Handa who puts seven delicious pieces of fruit in her basket and sets out to take them to her friend. As she walks with the basket on her head, several creatures steal her fruit. A monkey takes the banana, an ostrich the guava, a zebra the orange, an elephant the mango, a giraffe the pineapple, an antelope the avocado and a parrot the passion fruit. Handa is unaware of the fruit being stolen but a goat charges into a tangerine tree and fills the basket with tangerines much to Handa’s surprise when she hands the basket to her friend. The story brings alive both Africa and the fruit and animals at the centre of the story.

The play:

The Theatre Royal Bath’s award winning children’s theatre, “the egg”, brings this book to the stage in a blend of live performance, puppetry, music and song. It is showing from the 16th to the 18th of October.

Also showing at the Lyric in London and the Albany in Deptford.

The Musicians of Bremen (age 4 +)

The book:

The story of the Town Musicians of Bremen is an old German fairy tale that was recorded by the Brothers Grimm. It tells the story of a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster who are all mistreated by their masters. They meet and decide that they would like to go to Bremen to be free of their masters as Bremen is known for its freedom. On the way, they see a lighted cottage and, standing on each other’s backs they look in and see four robbers inside. They decide to perform for the men in the hope that they will be fed. The noise they make, however, scares the men and they run for their lives leaving the animals to move into the house and enjoy the food . . . I recommend the new flip up version of the book by Barbara Vagmozzi.

The play:

The Rude Mechanical Theatre Company is staging an adaptation of this story at The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton on 11 October.
Also on at the Tricycle Theatre, London.

Horrible Histories

These brilliant books by Terry Deary and Martin Brown about the nastiest periods of history have managed to keep millions of children interested and inspired whilst teaching them real facts about the history of the world. The Palace Theatre, Manchester, is bringing the fun to the stage with a look at the awesome Egyptians and the rotten Romans and promises to tell your children all the foul facts that simply are not available in the classroom.

Story telling season at The Unicorn

With 2008 being the National Year of Reading, The Unicorn Theatre is celebrating with a Storytelling Season. With Daniel Morden telling his Dark Tales From The Woods (21-26 October), Ben Haggarty and Tuup exploring the Mexican festival of the Day of the Dead (28-31 October and 1-2 November) and Sally Pomme Clayton telling her story of The Golden Castle That Hung In the Air (4-9 November) there is much to keep the Children happy over the coming months and The Day of the Dead would make a great Halloween treat.

The Unicorn Theatre for Children, Clore Theatre, London:

Horrid Henry

Francesca Simon’s character, Horrid Henry, everyone’s favourite awful child, goes live. The Playhouse Theatre in Liverpool is bringing Henry to the stage for the first time between the 11th and the 15th of November. The favourite characters of Henry’s mum, his dad, Perfect Peter, Moody Margaret and Rude Ralph will all take part but, undoubtedly, Henry will make sure he takes centre-stage.

*Mexico’s “Day of the Dead” celebration (not as spooky as it sounds) is the equivalent of our “All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day” and France’s “ La Toussaint”. Mexicans visit the graves of relatives on this day with offerings of food, drink and sweets in the belief that they revisit earth on that one night of the year!

Oxford bookshow

On Wednesday 1st October, Michael Rosen (the current Children’s Laureate) will be holding the audience spellbound with his exhilarating and humourous performance. He will be joined by Anushka Ravishankar (the author of Catch the Crocodile) who has become well known for her books of nonsense verse.

The Oxford Playhouse:

Michael Rosen’s “Pinocchio” also plays for an extended period in late autumn at the Polka Theatre in Wimbledon.

Ghosts in the Gallery

The Polka Theatre in Wimbledon puts on “Ghosts in the Gallery” where 500 years of British history comes to life in 90 minutes in a fast-paced journey from the Tudor times to the 21st Century:

“It’s Halloween and closing time in the gallery. A young girl is desperate to see her favourite portrait of Anne Boleyn - when suddenly two hands reach out and grab her!”

Join the Polka Theatre at the National Portrait Gallery for a special evening on Friday 31st October for some spooky fun surprises.

And there’s more - Deptford: How the Giraffe got its neck, Musicians of Bremen, Hoof, The Little Red Hen, and Handa’s Surprise. - London N12: Hoof, Old Mother Hubbard, The Selfish Giant and The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch. - Barking, Essex: The Little Red Hen, The Marvellous Magical Coat, Handa’s Surprise, Tales from Old Japan. - London NW6. Carnival Child, Treasure Island, Beauty and the Beast, The Musicians of Bremen, Sinbad, The Dragon’s Tale. - Greenwich: The Sun Dragon, Giraffes can’t Dance. - Hammersmith W6: Teapot, Little Red You Know Who, Hoof