Plasticine Heroes

Feature in Issue 9-2 | Summer 1997

Performer, director and Feldenkrais practitioner Andy Dawson has been busy breathing life into Nick Park's characters Wallace and Gromit. He describes the process which brought the plasticine pair for the first time to the stage.

Last summer my son was watching Wallace & Gromit and just when Wallace was asking Gromit whether he enjoyed his walk with the Techno Trousers, it occurred to me that it would be possible to see the characters of Wallace and Gromit played by actors.

I have had contact with Aardman animations, the producers of Wallace and Gromit, for many years. They used to organise mini-bus loads of animators to come up and see Thunderbirds F.A.B. and The Three Musketeers. More recently, I have worked with them on TV commercials and now I teach workshops with them using the Feldenkrais method to help them understand movement that is then reflected in their animation.

Aardman had previously been approached several times to bring Wallace and Gromit to the stage, but they rejected every request. When I proposed the idea, they already understood the angle I would come from. They liked how Thunderbirds arrived on stage. They knew that I would not be interested in ridiculing the original characters and that I would treat the material with care.

In many ways it is completely crazy to take such familiar and special creations and transfer them to the theatre. Would it work? Would you believe that the actors are Wallace and Gromit? Now three months into the national tour, these questions have already been answered. The audience love them. This is largely due to the skill and talent of the cast. Paul Filipiak as Wallace, Russ Edwards as Gromit, Joyce Henderson as Wendolene, Mark Hollander as Shaun, and Angela Clerkin as the Penguin. The cast are not in big rubber suits. I wanted to capture the essence of the characters so that the audience would quickly replace their memory of the original with what they saw before their eyes. An original storyline, which contains elements of the three original films has been developed for the stage show. Martin Lloyd Evans is associate director, Jon Lynstrom designed the lights, and Tom Piper the set and costumes. Tom has brought to life that most marvellous Wallace invention – a caravan that turns into his very own little theatre.

I knew immediately that I was not going to recreate any of the original films and that we needed to meet Wallace in the theatre with an original and theatrical storyline. Within this new world I decided to concentrate on the details that I really like in the originals, like Wendolene's earrings and the way the penguin steps onto a window ledge. These are all delicate moments of animation. The transition to stage is made possible because when you watch the films you don't think of plasticine. You see the characters as real, if in sometimes bizarre situations. We drop into their world very easily, we sympathise with their dilemmas. This allowed us the window of opportunity to bring them to life. Nick Park, the creator of the originals, was probably our biggest test. The first time he saw the show was nerve-wracking, but he was delighted. Phew!

To produce a commercial show like this one is quite an undertaking. John Gore, who produced Thunderbirds F.A.B. in the West End, was mad enough to think that it was a good idea and from a small idea it quickly grew. When Wallace and Gromit got lost in New York and their picture was on the cover of all the national papers, I knew we were onto something big. When we first advertised the show we booked 13 weeks in 48 hours. The tour takes the show around the country playing a week in each city. The set fits into two 40ft trailers, we have 6 crew, tour our own sound rig and lots of lights. It is a long way from Thunderbirds – that fitted in the back of my car!

The show will tour again in the autumn. A trip to Japan is in the offing. Wallace and Gromit just arrived there and they love them. Thunderbirds went down very well in Tokyo so I have high hopes for the show there. We also hope to play the West End at the end of the year. After that there will be no stopping it. Thunderbirds Toured for 11 years. Wallace and Gromit: A Grand Night Out will probably see us into the next century.

Referenced Artists

This article in the magazine

Issue 9-2
p. 9