PART Ladybird story, part art installation, this year's Arches Christmas promises a fresh take on an old children's favourite, writes Mark Fisher
THE books we read as young children live to haunt us. Even if we forget the stories, we can never quite shake off the intense feelings evoked by the pictures. That is certainly the case with Julie Brown, who, as soon as she was invited to direct Little Red Riding Hood at Glasgow's Arches Theatre, thought back to her formative Ladybird "easy reading" book and its pictures of the girl in the gingham dress and red cloak, basket over her arm, being tempted by a wolf, half-playful, half-sinister.
"I still have all my Ladybird books from when I was wee," says Brown in a rehearsal break. "My mum and dad kept them all for me. So when Little Red Riding Hood was decided upon, I looked out my old books – I'd obviously been playing libraries at some point because they had library cards in them – and, as soon as I started to leaf through the book again, it was the pictures that I remembered. I knew what was coming next. It was the colour and the atmosphere from the images that I remembered."
It was that kind of visual intensity she wanted to recreate in her adaptation of the story for the Arches Christmas show, which she is directing for the first time, having acted in the subterranean theatre's productions of The Water Babies, Hansel and Gretel and The Little Mermaid in previous years. Working with designer Hazel Blue, she is transforming the whole theatre space, almost as if it were an art installation.
"I was remembering that colourful visual element that the original Ladybird books had for me when I was a child," she says. "Hazel and I both realised we wanted to have the sense of a real fable and to envelop the studio space. I was really keen that, from the moment you enter the doorway of the studio, you've crossed into this other place. As you come in you will pass through Little Red Riding Hood's house. Visually, it was about finding something stimulating, bright and not too naturalistic to give it the sense that this is a story that we're telling."
For the text, she turned not to the Ladybird book, but to the Brothers Grimm version, although, mindful of a target audience that ranges from three and up, she has been careful not to let things get too frightening. Natalie McConnon, fresh from her acclaimed Edinburgh Fringe performance as Sandy in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, will guide the audience into the woods in the title role, as she sets out to see Mary Gapinski as the sick granny. Playing the big bad wolf, Aly Macrae will wear his grizzly mask on his head – Lion King-style – to reassure younger viewers he is only an actor, although Brown is giving him leeway to get more creepy if he senses the audience can take it.
"I felt it was important that we still had that element of fright and scare in there, not wanting to dumb down, but just being aware of who it's for," she says, adding that McRae has also written the music, which will be performed live by the actors. "Although the wolf is sinister and wicked, we're giving him more of a sense of fun and play, so that our younger audiences can still listen to what he's saying and go on the journey with him without being perturbed by how he looks and what he's about to do to granny. But, physically, we can change it so that if our audience are older and he gets the sense that we're fine, he can change his physicality so that we only see the wolf. If it's a younger audience, we can always remind them, it's OK, there's only an actor here."
For the rest of the year, Brown is one half on the team behind touring theatre company Random Accomplice – the other half being Johnny McKnight, who is playing the dame in the MacRobert's Sleeping Beauty this season – and she is known for creating raucously funny shows that refuse to take themselves too seriously. She has carried that sense of fun into the rehearsal room, although she is being careful not to forget the seriousness of Little Red Riding Hood.
"There's always a lovely vibe in rehearsals at this time of year," she says. "When we're in the rehearsal room, we're just playing with the words and enjoying the story again. I can bring the Random Accomplice element of fun into the rehearsal room, not being afraid to try things out. So there will be elements of daft humour in the show, yes, but I don't want it to be farcical or panto-like. I want to stick to the traditional fable and the telling of the story."
• Little Red Riding Hood is at the Arches, Glasgow, from tomorrow until 3 January