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Interview: A pea, a princess and a circus show

Theresa Heskins on adapting The Princess and the Pea

The Unicorn Theatre is having a cracking season of children’s shows under new Artistic Director Rachel Bagshaw, so we’re very excited that next up is The Princess and the Pea, which has been adapted by the amazing Theresa Heskins – Olivier Award-winner no less! We were delighted to get the chance to chat with Theresa and ask her about this exciting new work.

Hi Theresa. Thanks so much for taking time out of rehearsals to tell us about your adaptation of this Hans Christian Andersen classic. Firstly, The Princess and the Pea has been done a million times, so what is different about your version?

It’s circus meets slapstick – so it’s all bouncing about and falling over. Lots of fun.  

Underpinning the fun there’s some serious stuff too, inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s life.  He came from very humble beginnings, growing up in the one room cottage where his cobbler dad worked at a bench in the window. His mum worked out at the riverside – a laundress washing clothes for the wealthy townspeople, up to her waist in the bitter cold water whatever the weather. Her life of service has inspired us to think about privilege and about service; about whether princesses really do have a special sensitivity; and about democracy.

You’ve worked with a range of performance styles before, from musicals to ballet, but is this your first time working with circus?

Not a bit, and I love it! I’ve been working with Vicki Amedume, who is co-directing, for 15 years. Our most recent project was a play about the inventor of the modern circus, Philip Astley: it was packed with clowns and circus spectacle and live music. And later this year we work together to adapt Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves as a piece of circus/theatre/spoken word fusion.   

That said, I don’t do anything circussy myself – I’m in charge of story. But Vicki is a former circus artist, tiger tamer, engineer and biologist…so now you wish you were speaking to her!

Your target audience is tiny people, ages 2+. How does that impact on your adaptation?

We’ve been inspired by the groups of young people and their families who we worked with at the Unicorn during the development of this play, and especially by the things that made them laugh.  Essentially, what we’ve created is a cartoon on stage. It’s vibrant and a lot of fun, and like the best cartoons, will appeal to people of all ages, both children and adults.

Tell us a bit about the cast. Have they had to have particular training in circus skills?

Two are circus artists who have acting skills, two are actors who have acrobatic skills. All four of them are comedians who understand slapstick comedy. They’re the loveliest bunch of people to be with and their commitment to this work and this audience is huge – it’s a real privilege to make this with them.

The show is produced by the Unicorn in conjunction with Upswing and the New Vic theatre. How does that combination of talents fit together? 

All three companies have expertise in making award-winning work for young audiences, and touring it internationally – to New York and China most recently. Then we all bring our particular disciplines.  Upswing is a circus company; the Unicorn has great expertise in consulting and engaging with young people; the New Vic has a particular style of physical visual theatre which we’re bringing to this piece. 

What do you hope the families who see your show come away with?

A love for live performance, and a desire to explore circus, which is a great artform for increasing physical fitness and emotional wellbeing. There will be a special guide to how to do this safely at home!  

And where to next for The Princess and the Pea after the Unicorn? Is it touring?

After the run at the Unicorn we’re off to the New Vic in Staffordshire, and then further adventures await – watch this space.

Many thanks to Theresa for chatting with us about her unique show. The Princess and the Pea is aimed at ages 2+ and runs at the Unicorn Theatre from Friday 17 May to Sunday 16 June. Booking details can be found here.

About Mary Pollard

By her own admission Mary goes to the theatre far too much, and will watch just about anything. Her favourite musical is Matilda, which she has seen 16 times, but she’s also an Anthony Neilson and Shakespeare fan - go figure. She has a long history with Richmond Theatre, but is currently helping at Shakespeare's Globe as a steward and in the archive. She's also having fun being ET's specialist in children's theatre and puppetry, and being a Super Assessor for the Offies! Mary now insists on being called The Master having used the Covid pandemic to achieve an award winning MA in London's Theatre and Performance.