John Godber had no choice but to adapt Horrid Henry for stage, says Terry Grimley.
When Watershed Productions were first thinking about making a stage version of Francesca Simon’s popular Horrid Henry children’s books, a lot of time was spent debating who to commission to make an adaptation.
John Godber’s name kept being mentioned, because they felt that what was needed was something close in spirit to his classic, Bouncers. And then they thought: why not ask Godber himself?
There seemed very little chance that he would be interested, because he had never adapted the work of another living writer. But on the other hand, what did they have to lose?
John Godber takes up the story: “Probably 18 months ago I got an e-mail from the company who were doing it, saying ‘We know you won’t be interested, but ...’
“My 11-year-old daughter, who is a massive Horrid Henry fan, saw it over my shoulder and said, ‘if you don’t do it I’m leaving home, which was a particularly Horrid Henry response. So I said yes.
“I’ve adapted Moby Dick and Dickens, but it’s the first living author I’ve done. It wouldn’t normally have been something I would have immediately said yes to.”
Since the first Horrid Henry book was published in 1994 the series has gone on to sell ten million copies worldwide, being translated into 25 languages. The phenomenon stepped up to another level when an animated TV series featuring the character was launched in 2004.
As a parent, John Godber was already fully acquainted with it.
“I’ve got an 11-year-old who wouldn’t read until she discovered Horrid Henry. He comes in bite-sized chunks at about ten minutes a book, so they’re perfect for bedtime stories.
“So we started thinking about how we could make these books into an evening of theatre for young people and not bore their parents – that was a crucial question. Henry is a bit of an anti-hero. I thought that if he had a show written about him he would have two Henrys, so he has a doppelganger.
“The shows is a kind of rock concert as a tribute to himself, because Henry is quite self-centred. And that’s how I put six stories together.
“We’ve tried not to be patronising and we’ve tried to remain true to the books and make it exciting theatre. So it’s not set in a room.
“There’s a cast of 11 and it’s very, very physical, with lots of songs and very high energy. The books are very literal and you get to the action very quickly, and kids seem to like the fact you go from dramatic point to dramatic point.
“My elder daughter is 14 and unimpressed by anything I do. She sat through it with 20 of her mates when it came to Hull and had a great time.”
Godber, a former drama teacher from a West Yorkshire mining family, has been artistic director of Hull Truck theatre company since 1984, the year his first big hit, Up ’n’ Under, won the Laurence Olivier award for Comedy of the Year.
He has just realised a 25-year dream by taking possession of a brand new theatre in Hull which replaces the Spring Street Theatre, Hull Truck’s home since 1989.
“I’m sitting in my new office now,” he tells me. “We came into the new theatre last week – it should have been opened five months ago. It’s a £15 million state-of-the-art theatre with a 440-seat main theatre and a 135-seat studio.
“We think it’s the greenest theatre on the planet, in that it’s naturally water-cooled and heated. It’s been a long slog for me, but it’s everything that Hull deserves.
“Big cities up and down the country have these spaces, and we’re very proud of it. And we’ve managed to build it for the cost of the overspend on the Leicester Curve.”
Although they have fallen away from their form in the first half of the season, Godber says that the success of Hull City in the Premiership has helped raise the confidence of a city which has caught the regeneration bus.
“The football team has reinvigorated the spirit of the city. We are part of a £700 million city centre regeneration which includes a £6 million music education centre and a £15 million theatre.”
It’s the answer to the question of how long Godber expects to stay in Hull, where after a quarter of a century he is already Alan Ayckbourn’s only serious rival as longest-serving playwright-artistic director.
“My kids are at school, we’re settled in,” he says. “I’ve just got the theatre I’ve waited for for 25 years, so you don’t leave that in a hurry.”
* Horrid Henry - Live and Horrid! is at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, from Wednesday to Saturday next week (box office: 024 7655 3055); Grand Theatre, Wolverhampton, May 8-10 (box office: 01902 429212); and Malvern Festival Theatre, May 21-24 (box office: 01684 892277).