The problem of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle’s undercarriage was enough to keep acclaimed theatre set designer Roger Glossop up at night. He’d built a theatre, secured the rights to Beatrix Potter’s books and written a show, got Alan Ayckbourn to write the lyrics for some songs and, finally, helped design an innovative style of puppeteering.
But these things were practically easy in comparison with the troublesome hedgehog’s derriere.
After several sleepless nights he came up with an ingenious, if slightly unusual, solution to the problem of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle being too heavy for a puppeteer to carry; she was given a new bottom that sat on top of an office chair.
Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, her office chair, and a whole cast of other Beatrix Potter favourites have, since 2016, been entertaining thousands at the theatre adjoining The World Of Beatrix Potter attraction in the Lake District in their delightful show Where Is Peter Rabbit?.
It may be nearly 120 years since Beatrix Potter – a shy illustrator and self-taught scientist – introduced the world to her little tales of Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck, but their popularity has never waned. Pictured, the current West End cast of the show
But now the charming tale of countryside life will be moving to the big city for a run in London’s West End this month.
It may be nearly 120 years since Beatrix Potter – a shy illustrator and self-taught scientist – introduced the world to her little tales of Peter Rabbit, Tom Kitten and Jemima Puddle-Duck, but their popularity has never waned.
A Peter Rabbit film last year made more than £250 million at the box office while fans can buy everything from Beatrix Potter pyjamas to hand creams.
‘The characters are naughty and fluffy and cute,’ says Roger Glossop, who, as well as designing theatre sets across the country, is director of The World Of Beatrix Potter.
‘But they aren’t cutesy stories. They’re about the good and bad of animal life. Tommy Brock, the badger, steals some baby rabbits and wants to cook them in the oven.
‘Mr Tod, the fox, wants to eat Jemima Puddle-Duck. The fearsome gardener Mr McGregor looms large in this production.
‘He’s already put Peter’s father in a rabbit pie, so he’s not a very nice guy.
‘I’m not saying these stories are really dark, but they’re about animal life, not fluffiness.
Actor and TV Presenter Griff Rhys Jones is one of the narrators of the show. He believes it’s as much a joy for adults as it is for children
‘There’s real jeopardy for the animals and that’s what makes the stories exciting. Without that darkness, these stories would have disappeared long ago.
‘Potter was a very clever writer as well as a fantastic illustrator.’
His World Of Beatrix Potter exhibition in Bowness-on-Windermere, which brings Beatrix’s magical world to life with storytelling, nature trails, craft sessions and a Peter Rabbit tea party, has been running for 28 years and attracts around 200,000 visitors a year, and Roger says the stories are popular across the globe.
‘Obviously there are a lot of British fans but her appeal is truly international.
‘She’s incredibly popular in the Far East – I’ve been told the Japanese used to teach English through these little books.
‘We also have Chinese people coming in huge numbers, Americans, South Koreans and Europeans. It’s a phenomenon.’
Actress Miriam Margolyes pictured during a voice recording session for ‘Where’s Peter Rabbit?’ in London
He started the show there, in a theatre adjoining the attraction, three years ago as a way of commemorating the 150th anniversary of Beatrix’s birth, getting acclaimed dramatist Alan Ayckbourn, an old friend and colleague, involved after the original lyricist withdrew.
‘The show took around a year of planning, including a long wait from the executors of the Beatrix Potter estate for permission to use the stories.
The show combines five of Potter’s most well-known tales about Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Tod, Jemima Puddle-Duck, the frog Jeremy Fisher and, of course, the cheeky Peter Rabbit in an hour-long extravaganza. Six actors play multiple characters each, using puppets strapped onto them with a harness, based on the same technique used in The Lion King musical.
The puppets, made from aluminium and lightweight fibres, are faithfully based on Potter’s drawings, even to the extent that they’re coloured in from a white base to mimic the look of the original watercolours which were painted on white paper.
The show combines five of Potter’s most well-known tales about Mrs Tiggy-Winkle, Mr Tod, Jemima Puddle-Duck, the frog Jeremy Fisher and, of course, the cheeky Peter Rabbit in an hour-long extravaganza. Six actors play multiple characters, using puppets strapped onto them with a harness, based on the same technique used in The Lion King musical
Miriam Margolyes and Griff Rhys Jones are the narrators.
‘There’s a fundamental decency about all of these characters,’ says Miriam.
‘Beatrix’s stories don’t shy away from the existence of darkness, but they’re also a window into the simplicity of childhood.
‘I’ve always loved and admired the Beatrix Potter books, even though I came to them late. I was probably about 15 when I explored them – apart from the stories themselves, I loved the illustrations. I feel the books are a force for good.’
Griff, who’s a trustee of the theatre at the attraction and an old friend of Roger’s, adds, ‘They’re inspired little works of literature and art, not just because of the beautiful paintings and drawings but because she knew her characters so well.
‘I always think of Jemima Puddle-Duck who goes off from the pond – which is what lady ducks do to make nests, and that’s when the foxes get them.
‘There’s a delicious no-nonsense tone that both kids and adults respond to. Miss Potter never talks down.
‘I love Peter Rabbit in particular because he’s naughty and always thinking of his stomach.
‘He gets into trouble, but because he’s little and wholly innocent we all root for him.
‘The books are loved for a reason, and this is an inspired version with puppets and dancing and music so everyone can enjoy seeing the stories brought to life.’
There will be 14 shows a week for most of April at the Theatre Royal Haymarket – all of them during the day – with plans for a possible tour further down the line. In the evenings, the theatre is showing the Only Fools And Horses musical, which means extra complications for the Peter Rabbit team, whose sets will be placed on top of the Trotter production’s and have to be taken down every evening.
There’ll be 40 people behind the scenes to ensure things run smoothly. ‘The whole thing is a bit of a military operation.
From the start, it’s been the biggest little show I’ve ever been involved in,’ says Roger, for whom this really has been a labour of love, funded with his own money.
‘When we couldn’t find puppeteers to make the puppets in the way we wanted we set up our own puppet workshop to make them.
‘Then there are visuals and projections – it’s all a bit mad really.
‘We could have fallen flat on our faces but people liked it and that’s why we keep bringing it back every summer, and now we will get our chance to show it in front of hundreds more people. It’s for three-year-olds to 97-year-olds and it’s a brilliant way of getting people into the theatre and watching a bit of live action rather than just sitting in front of their laptops.
‘We have everything Beatrix Potter fans could want – puppets, music, the stories and these wonderful characters.’
- Where Is Peter Rabbit? runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London until 28 April. For tickets visit peterrabbitlive.com.