Page to Stage – Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear

Andy Stanton has been watching his story of Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear take new life as a piece of musical theatre over the early summer.

Emily Turner joined a group of school children at a rehearsal a few weeks before it opens and chatted to the author afterwards.

“When they first approached me I was under the misapprehension they wanted me to give it [the story] over completely. I didn’t like the idea but I was just about ready...” laughs Andy. When he realised they wanted both the story AND him to adapt it, he was delighted.

It is his first experience of working in theatre and he has loved it. “I have learnt so much about how to work with people. It is the exact opposite of being an author which can be a bit of a lonely process. Working with other people’s brains is an absolute joy.”

andy stanton mr gum rehearsal national theatre

Photo by TheOtherRichard

The musical numbers have been a collaboration with Jim Fortune. Andy describes himself as having a ‘very musical ear’ while being ‘very unmusical’, though he spends most of his life composing and walks around with a harmonica. He has clearly relished seeing the songs spring from a line of text, from Jim’s melody or an idea/fragment/feel. The musical numbers work both to progress the story and for emotional transitions to occur. From the rehearsal I saw, there are some good foot tapping tunes among them.

He explains that he had got the script into some sort of shape before the actors started rehearing but he learnt a huge amount from the first run throughs he sat in on. “So often we didn’t use half of what I’d written. They’d do it with their inflections/bodies. When you are writing you are actor/director/everyone. The joy of theatre is divvying it up. Take out the red pen. The scene can end a page earlier than you thought it would!”

As for the humour, Andy says to some extent you have to trust that what you think is funny will translate. He has done heaps of stand up reading at festivals and in schools so he has a good idea of the language of theatre. “The trick is to sense the emotional undercurrent. It is very important to the nonsense. Without warmth, the humanity is missing.” Mr Gum and Billy are fundamentally inept but for the stage the darkness has been ‘dialled up’. I can vouch for this. There is a scene in which the, beautifully emotive, puppet bear is forced to dance. In rehearsal, there was an audible gasp from the young audience and you could feel the hostility agains Mr Gum rise.

mr gum rehearsal 2019 national theatre

Photo by TheOtherRichard

He is thrilled with the way it is all coming together. “The spirit of the show seems to be the only way the books could be now…. More and more though I feel like it is everyone’s show.”

We are very much looking forward to seeing it.

Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear previews from 25 July and runs to 31 August at the Dorfman Theatre.

nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/mr-gum-and-the-dancing-bear