Short Stories are often ideal pieces to make into plays – but the signature touch to David Almond’s stage adaptation of The Savage is Live’s staging of it.
With the opening of Live Gardens next door and with it Live Tales, their writing centre for children and young people, it’s little surprise they’ve chosen to adapt a children’s story for their main production. A lot of people get sniffy about adapting children’s books for an adult audience, but these tales are often ideal for an adaptation. The bane of adapting novels is that it’s very difficult to adapt anything over 200 pages without making massive cuts to the story; but this means that easy-going story length of books aimed at children or teenagers suddenly becomes ideal when transplanted to the stage.
The other things about children’s stories is that the best ones are a lot darker than grown-ups give them credit for, and David Almond’s graphic novel The Savage is no exception. The central character of the story is a boy only known as “Blue”, in the aftermath of the sudden loss of his father. A teacher tries to get him to embark on creative writing, but his mind isn’t on this – until Hopper comes along. Hopper has also lost his father, in his case to prison, and we will in time discover he is just as unhappy, but for now Hopper disguises this by tormenting Blue about his own father. So Blue comes up with a story about a “savage” who lives in a hole and kills people who get to close to him. The origins are vague – perhaps Blue considered Hopper a savage, or perhaps a savage was a fate Blue wished on Hopper, but Blue ends up finding his own self burring with his creation.
But whilst this would be a good choice for any theatre to take on, it was especially a good choice for Live to do this – and not just because it happens to be set on Tyneside. Being a new writing theatre, there is inevitably a hit-and-miss element to Live’s plays, but the thing I’ve found consistently good about them is their sets. They rarely settle for a merely functional set and there’s always something about them that catches the eye – the dive of a nightclub in Our Ladies, the (metaphorcally) crumbling household in Geoff Dead, the disappearing wall in Iris, and even the eye-catching generic set for Elevator are things that spring to mind. This one has to be seen to be believed: at first glance it looks like a Stig’s tip from Stig of the Dump, but this is in fact a multi-purpose set covering Blue’s classroom, bedroom, the quayside, and everything in between.
Then there’s the rest of the staging. I was quite excited to learn that Novak was designing the projections for the play, having previously seen their work on Durham Castle for Lumiere. They do not disappoint here, with the main projection being Blue’s mis-spelt manuscript and crudely-drawn pictures appearing on the walls. One of my favourite touches was the way that first the savage is only talked about, then he appears on the wall is Blue’s drawings, before Blue himself starts acting it out himself. But it’s not just Novak’s projections – everything about this play is tightly integrated into a slick production: lighting, sound, great music, a cast of four who seamlessly switch between the different characters without any confusion, and we must not forget the script produced by David Almond himself that made this all possible.
Couple of minor niggles: great though all this razzmatazz was, I did feel they did sometimes get a bit too carried away from it and end up digressing into song and dance that didn’t really progress the story. And I was a bit confused by the ending; just when we reached the point where it looks like Blue might be carrying out the savage’s story for real, suddenly everything works itself out. I know it’s often the intention of these sorts of stories to confuse fantasy and reality, but I couldn’t work out whether or not this was intentional.
But it’s a good story and as far as production values go, this plays to Live’s strengths handsomely. Normally I would be singling out members of the creative team, but there’s some many thing to pick out here I don’t think I could do this without leaving out someone important. But I think I can safely credit Max Roberts with the best he’s done as directing in the nine years I’ve been going to Live Theatre. It is very much a team effort, but what a team he’s led here.
The Savage runs until the 23rd July at Live Theatre.