Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Tuesday 21 May 2019

Capturing the magic of a much-loved book

A beautiful stage version of children's classic 'How To Catch A Star' is now on a nationwide tour. Tanya Sweeney reports

How To Catch A Star is brought to life on stage by puppeteers. Photo: Anita Murphy photography
How To Catch A Star is brought to life on stage by puppeteers. Photo: Anita Murphy photography

Tanya Sweeney

For over a decade, the Northern Irish writer and illustrator Oliver Jeffers has been making bedtime a moment of pure magic for millions of children.

It was his debut, How To Catch A Star, that put Jeffers on the map as a global smash in children's literature. Ten years ago, in Galway, theatremaker Marc Mac Lochlainn was reading the stories to his oldest son in the evenings. He, too, became enchanted by Jeffers' books. "If you give the books a cursory glance, they're quite simple, but then the best art works are of a very simple form," he says. "There's a space there for children to add in the gaps themselves.

"My son and I fell immediately in love with the aesthetic, the simplicity of the language and the storyline," he adds. "Everyone can relate to this story - everyone has something they want and they'll do anything to get it."

As a director of children's theatre productions, Mac Lochlainn turned his thoughts to bringing Jeffers' enchanting work for page to stage. Since its inception in 2001, his company Branar Téatar do Pháistí has become renowned for magical storytelling and a unique approach to entertaining children. "We enter into all of our projects with a sense of respect for the audience," says Mac Lochlainn. "We respect their ability to understand stuff and we don't talk down to them and patronise them.

"We like to tell stories that allow space for children's imagination. These days, modern media is all push, push, push, with no room for a child to have their own thoughts about anything, and everything happens so fast. We like to create a space that's magical, where things aren't rushed."

In 2012, Branar Téatar do Pháistí acquired the rights to another much-loved Jeffers title, The Way Back Home. That production opened in Dublin in 2014 and was such a resounding success that it has travelled the world.

Oliver Jeffers
Oliver Jeffers

"When we did the show in the Southbank Theatre (in London), Oliver came to see it and he recognised the choices that he had tried to make work, but for whatever reasons, didn't within his story," says Mac Lochlainn. So when, a few years later, Branar came to adapting How To Catch A Star, they had the writer's blessing when they wanted to change the ending.

"The ending for the book is definitely satisfying, but on stage it wasn't quite satisfying enough so we imagined a scenario where the little boy had brought the star home with him," explains Mac Lochlainn. "Essentially, we added another chapter to it rather than copy directly what Oliver had created. He told us that he recognised the choice we made - he had tried to do something similar in the book but it didn't work within the story."

The visual element of Branar's production of How To Catch A Star is immediately familiar to fans of the book. It's the result of over two years of collaborations with a huge team of artists, among them puppeteers Grace Kiely and Neasa Ni Chuanaigh, set designer Maeve Clancy, set builder/lighting designer Ciaran Kelly and puppet designer Suse Reisbich.

It was first shown at the Galway Arts Festival last year and proved so popular, it has now embarked on a nationwide tour this autumn and winter, including at the Baboró Arts Festival in Galway this week.

While Jeffers' visual world is recreated with an impressive attention to detail, it was left to former Frames member and singer/songwriter Colm Mac Con Iomaire to provide the emotional cues with music.

When Mac Lochlainn realised that Colm too had read Oliver Jeffers stories to his own children, he seemed the perfect fit.

"He was great at getting a real sense of the story, and the size of the world," he notes. "Something like music helps children to realise that they're not watching TV or a video game. This is a different world - something special."

The production is aimed at children aged four to eight, and Mac Lochlainn has found, in almost two decades of making theatre for children, that they can be the most exacting, and yet gratifying, audience of all.

"It's funny, I always say that children applaud with their silence," he smiles. "It's how you really know they are in the story."

For a full list of dates, see Branar.ie.

Irish Independent

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