Leeds Playhouse brings the world premiere of Roald Dahl's The Enormous Crocodile The Musical to the stage this festive season...
The Enormous Crocodile is running alongside Oliver! as part of Leeds Playhouse's fun festive offer for families before transferring to Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre for their 2024 summer season. The production is part of a new slate of theatrical work from the Roald Dahl Story Company, which also includes a major new musical of The Witches at the National Theatre.
I got the chance to speak to book and lyrics writer of the show Suhayla El-Bushra to find all about this new production.
For anyone who doesn’t know the story of The Enormous Crocodile, how would you describe the show to them?
The show is about an Enormous Crocodile who decides that he wants to eat a child. He sets off to find one on the very day that a group of children have come camping in the jungle! It’s down to some of the other animals to stop him - but he’s terrifying and sneaky, with lots of secret plans and clever tricks up his sleeve.
What were the main challenges adapting a book into a musical?
There were so many! Firstly adapting any book into something that works on stage is hard. It may work on the page or when you’re reading it out loud, but turning it into something that will hold an audience’s attention for an hour, with the all the tension and plot twists and turns that requires, takes a lot of time and effort. Then there is working out which moments actually need to become songs, and what those songs should consist of. Writing songs is very labour intensive and takes ages. There’s a lot of writing and rewriting lyrics, a lot of back and forth with the composer, then it all has to be arranged, musically, so that it’s telling the story in the best way it can. And after you’ve done all that you might realise that actually… it’s the wrong song. We have a few brilliant songs that we absolutely adored that we had to cut from the show because ultimately, they weren’t quite right for the story. That was very painful.
With The Enormous Crocodile being a classic story by Roald Dahl, what has been done to bring something new to the show?
Much of the story has stayed the same - it has a brilliant structure that already works. We’ve really just added to it, rather than taken anything away. There’s a teacher in our version, who isn’t in the book, and the children are a little bit more prominent. We also show the animals coming together and deciding to stop
The Enormous Crocodile, as we felt we needed to see that moment. In the book you just see them appear to save the children each time, but we felt it was a good opportunity for a song and also creates a bit of tension going forward - will they stop him? Or will he succeed in eating a child?!
The show has puppets, what does this bring to the show? And how do you think the audience will react to the puppets?
The puppets are incredible. They each have their own strong characteristics, and even though you can see the actors operating them you get a real sense of the animals/children they represent. I think they look stunning and love the way they tell the story.
How and when did your love of writing start?
I used to write stories and make my own little books from a very young age. Probably as early as 5. I was happy playing by myself and spent a lot of time in my own world. As I got older creative writing was something I liked doing at school, but I never imagined it would be something I could do as a job. When
I was in my late 20s I did a short film making course and wrote a script as part of that. That’s when I realised that not only did I want to write, I wanted to write stories for other people to perform, as I enjoyed the collaboration, and seeing something I’d written being brought to life.
Was there a show or writer that inspired you?
There have been so many. The one that springs to mind now is a TV show called Grange Hill that I used to love when I was about 10. I had moved from Sudan in East Africa to England, and it was a very gritty, hard hitting drama set in a secondary school. It didn’t shy away from big issues, but also really captured some of the more every day aspects of school life and was very funny at times. It taught me a lot about life in the UK! It’s also inspired me not to talk down to young people when writing for them, or assume they won’t be able to understand complex ideas.
Where do you see your career in the next 5-10 years? And what changes do you think we will see in regards to the type of shows in theatres?
Who knows? Writing is a precarious career, and I don’t know what will happen in the next 6 months, let alone six years! I will be very happy if I’m still writing shows that are getting made. In terms of the future of theatre, that’s very hard to predict. The industry has had a lot of setbacks, firstly because of covid and now because it’s just so expensive to make theatre. There’s also less investment in arts training and our current government does not see the value in teaching arts subjects in schools, which I find very troubling. My worry is that people will not see theatre as a career they can afford to try, and that the theatre world will only consist of people who already have money from other sources. But then again, people have always felt the need to tell stories, and to gather together to listen to stories, so I feel optimistic that our desire to express ourselves will win out in the end.
Which do you prefer writing for Stage or Screen?
I love them both in different ways. I love how immediate theatre is - you’re in a room with actors making something, and then you get to sit with an audience and see how they respond. It’s live and exciting. But nearly everyone watches TV and I love the fact that something you’ve written is available across the whole country. That’s absolutely brilliant.
The industry for both Stage and Screen is so competitive and hard for new and experienced writers, what advice would you give to anyone trying to break into the industry?
My advice would be to keep plugging away. Everyone always says ‘it’s a marathon, not a race’ and I think that’s true. It takes a really long time to get anywhere. But if you have stories that you are compelled to tell, and you can bothered to sit staring at a screen or a page wrestling with them for hours on end, then that’s half the battle won. The other thing I would suggest is try out what you’ve written whenever you can. Even if it’s just getting your friends to come round and read a script out loud for you, or making a short film on your phone - you will never learn if what you’ve written works until you try it out, and you could be waiting years for a theatre or TV or film company to make what you’ve written, so get on with it and do it yourself. Also don’t worry if it’s not very good. You’ll never write anything good without writing a rubbish version of it first. The trick is to keep refining it until you’re vaguely happy with it.
In one sentence describe The Enormous Crocodile?
It’s a funny, colourful, joyful, at times enjoyably frightening show full of great tunes, fabulous dance routines, and delightful characters you want to hang out with.
The Enormous Crocodile plays at Leeds Playhouse until January 6.