Home Articles How My Dad's a Birdman (and my imagination) took flight
How My Dad\'s a Birdman (and my imagination) took flight PDF Print E-mail
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Wednesday, 01 December 2010 12:31

It was 2003, and I was on a book tour in Australia with my family. My stage version of my novel Skellig was to be that year\'s Christmas show at London\'s Young Vic theatre. I sat at the window of our Sydney hotel, checking emails. One came from the theatre\'s artistic director, David Lan: how, he wrote, would I like to write another play, for younger children, to run in the smaller studio theatre, while Skellig played in the main house? I looked across the city. The sun poured down on the bridge, the harbour, the opera house. Weirdly, it all put me in mind of Newcastle, my home town. "Yes," I wrote. "Of course."

I had only just begun to think of myself as a playwright; until very recently, I\'d only written prose. But some of that prose was for children, and they were teaching me a lot. Just after Skellig the novel came out, I read some of it to a primary-school class. Two boys rushed to me afterwards. "That was brilliant!" they cried. "We\'re going to act it out! He\'s Michael, I\'m Skellig! Howay!" And they were off. The first performance of Skellig, in a Newcastle school yard.

Children leap through the artificial boundaries we try to impose on stories. For them, words don\'t sit still in orderly lines on the page. They move fluently into drama, movement, dance, song.

After the book tour, we took a holiday in the Cook Islands. I sat facing the lagoon, the coral reef, the ocean, and I scribbled a few ideas for the new play. But then we put on masks and snorkels and I swam with my partner and daughter among outrageously beautiful, tender, friendly multicoloured fish. The story began to be released. In the warm lagoon of Rarotonga I saw images of birdmen and birdwomen inside barmy flying contraptions, leaping into the sky above Newcastle in an attempt to fly across the icy River Tyne.

Back at home, the North Sea replaced the Pacific; the Tyne bridge and The Sage replaced Sydney harbour and opera house. I sat in my terraced house, and the play\'s main characters jumped on to the page: a young girl called Lizzie yelled up the stairs to Jackie Crow, her sleeping dad; Jackie pulled wings out of a cupboard, strapped them on, leapt from the kitchen table; Auntie Doreen flung dumplings at the wall. And here came Benny the Bee Boy, Bouncing Bess, and The Human Helicopter Hubert Hall. They were all heading to Newcastle for the Great Human Bird Competition: fly across the Tyne \& win £1,000!

It was a tale with pain and loss at its heart, but it also seemed optimistic, with fast dialogue and funny songs: a story that jumped for joy and danced with hope. My play, called My Dad\'s a Birdman, was ready. Then came the process of casting, rehearsals, rewrites, previews ? when the story is enhanced and reshaped by the visions of actors, director, designer, musicians. All directed to the moment when the story takes the most outrageous and optimistic leap of all, off the stage and into the imaginations of the audience. The audience jumped and laughed and cheered and sighed. They joined in with The Dumpling Song. My daughter, Freya, flapped her arms in the air as she watched, just as she\'d swayed them under the sea. And then Christmas passed, and Skellig finished its run, and so did this play. Then came the weird, empty feeling when a play is over and the set is taken down, and everyone goes different ways.

A few months back, David Lan came calling again. He wanted to return the play to the Young Vic, in a bigger production with music by the Pet Shop Boys. Maybe it\'s not surprising that they\'ve come up with such perfect tunes; Neil Tennant grew up just across the Tyne from me. Maybe our imaginations met in mid-air. So the story\'s back on stage again, in a new, evolved shape, directed by Oliver Mears: a rather weird story set in chilly Newcastle, but with links to Sydney Harbour and Pacific lagoons and gorgeous fish.

This is not a news report and may contain views expressed by the author which are not supported by GNM.


Courtesy to guardian.co.uk.


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