There is a moment that will happen next week – a week today exactly in fact – when the stars will align and something rare and quite special will occur.
Like glimpsing a rare comet, this event has happened because the stars – or more accurately, the planning diaries of several theatres – aligned in a very particular way.
On December 9, a theatre in Bradford, two in Leeds, one in Scarborough and one in Sheffield will all be hosting stage shows that are either based on movies or better known as movies. Okay, so it might not be exactly like a lunar eclipse, but it feels worthy of note.
A week today you will be able to see Mary Poppins at the Bradford Alhambra, The Commitments at Leeds Grand Theatre, Pinocchio at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, Annie Get Your Gun at Sheffield Crucible and Strictly Ballroom at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
All of them began their lives as movies, or became best known as movies.
You’ll have seen that often written article that Hollywood has run out of ideas because they are forever retreading the same ground, but can the theatre be accused of the same? While admitting that I am hugely biased towards theatre and would defend its honour at the drop of a hat, I would have to say: no.
Turning something that began life as a film into a stage play is far more complicated than doing away with the outside scenes and moving them inside. Mary Poppins dancing with animated penguins? Can you imagine sitting down as the scriptwriter for the stage version and being faced with that moment? How about when Pinocchio’s nose grows every time he fibs? Sure, you can use a bit of stage trickery, but is that really going to cut the mustard when you have your audience up close and personal in the same room as the actors telling your story and they can really see the joints?
The theatre doesn’t look to the movies for easy solutions. Of course it helps if you have a ready made global audience who love a particular title, but as far as the practicalities of making a story made for film work for the stage, this is no easy option.
There is another problem, too. If your audience knows the story of the young ballroom dancer who follows his heart via the medium of the movie, do you run the risk of damaging their precious memories by translating it to a more limiting medium?
Tonight and tomorrow Leeds Grand Theatre plays host to the stage version of The Full Monty, another story that began as a movie and has now been adapted for the stage. The man behind the stage adaptation of the Sheffield-set stripper story has some authority when he speaks about turning the movie into a screenplay – it was written by Simon Beaufoy, the Keighley writer who was Oscar nominated for his original film script.
He was asked to adapt it when Sheffield Theatres decided to create a stage version of the hit film a couple of years ago.
Beaufoy says: “I trained as a documentary maker and I’d always thought in terms of screenplays, as film is my word. It never occurred to me to turn (The Full Monty) into a play until many years later. Of course, when I did, I sat down and realised that it’s very play-like, in the sense that there’s a lot of people sitting in one place, going nowhere. The last scene is very theatrical in the conventional sense.” That last scene (if you haven’t seen it, you really should know it and if you don’t, think about the title – it’s that) has huge power on stage. In the movie that finale, of course, happens on the stage, so what would be more obvious than re-writing it to play out on an actual stage?
Obvious, yes, easy, not quite so.
“I had to learn a lot about theatre,” admits Beaufoy. “I knew how to write drama, but had none of those specific theatrical craft skills. Slightly naively, I thought ‘how difficult could it be, I’ve already written the story?’ The answer was very. It’s hugely but subtly different. People will probably feel it’s like the film, but I had to learn a whole new set of skills to make it work in a theatrical space.”
Another man currently wrestling with the same issue is Drew McOnie, the director and choreographer of Strictly Ballroom. Not so much a movie as a cultural phenomenon, the Baz Luhrmann piece is coming to the stage in the UK for the first time at the West Yorkshire Playhouse next week. The film had its world premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, with a midnight screening which meant it became a literal overnight sensation. The audience famously gave the movie a 15-minute standing ovation and the jury awarded it the Prix De Jeunesse. The response sparked a bidding war to secure the distribution rights. McOnie, one of British theatre’s hottest young directors, is the man entrusted with bringing the story to life on stage. It will be different to the movie, he insists, but it will certainly carry the same spirit. “I met with Baz in New York and he wanted to know what I wanted to do with the piece, that I wasn’t just going to recreate the movie and put it on the stage,” he says. “First and foremost I think you have to connect with the story. It’s about telling the story in a way that people can connect with it, that’s the way you take something that existed as a movie and then put it on stage.
“Hopefully people won’t just get the movie on the stage because, well, then you might as well get people in the theatre, roll down a screen and play the movie.”
See tomorrow’s magazine for a feature about Strictly Ballroom’s costumes.
Strictly Ballroom, West Yorkshire Playhouse until January 21. Tickets 0113 2137700.
The Full Monty, Leeds Grand Theatre tonight and tomorrow.
The Commitments, Leeds Grand Theatre, December 5 to 10. Tickets 0844 8482700.
Annie Get Your Gun, Sheffield Crucible, December 9-January21. Tickets 0114 2496000.
Mary Poppins, Bradford Alhambra to December 10. Tickets 01274 432000.
Pinocchio, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, December 8 to 31. Tickets 01723 370541.