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Eleanor Updale: The dramatisation of Montmorency was a taxing, but rewarding, experience

Montmorency - theatre production shots
FreeRange Productions
Edinburgh Festival 2012
Fringe

Montmorency - theatre production shots FreeRange Productions Edinburgh Festival 2012 Fringe

  • by ELEANOR UPDALE
 

An e-mail asking for permission to dramatise your book is every author’s dream – and nightmare. The initial thrill is quickly followed by panic.

It’s as if someone you’d never met suddenly offered to do plastic surgery on your baby, with the implied promise, but no guarantee, that it might expand the child’s circle of friends in the future. What parent would say yes?

When I was contacted by Free Range Productions I had reason to be cautious. They wanted to write a stage version of my book Montmorency for the Fringe.

A previous attempt by an American film company to put it on screen had left me wondering why on earth the writers had bothered to use my title.

Montmorency is a double-identity adventure, a large part of which is set in the sewers of Victorian London. In the screen treatment, both those elements were lost. Characters retained their names, but their backgrounds and behaviour were transformed. Impossible historical details had been added in. Had I let that project go ahead I would have looked very stupid indeed. But this time the writers seemed to “get” the story, and that was just as well. I was deep in the production phase of one book and the composition of another, and had no time to write the play myself. So I had to trust them.

We met over coffee, and I was relieved to find that Free Range was aiming at an adult audience. The series – which is fit for all the family – was first marketed for children. Its readership has turned out to be much more varied, with older readers picking up on themes that those most interested in the excitement of the story might miss.

But I was well aware that there might be other problems. The main character (known as Montmorency and Scarper) struggles to make sure that neither of his identities compromises the other. As a result, he can’t have friends, and so there is little dialogue in the book. The scriptwriters would have to create it. Would they get the tone right? Would they avoid ridiculous pastiche of Victorian cadences without clanging anachronisms?

And Fringe productions are short – they would have to convey a complicated tale within an hour – building and dismantling an ambitious set (which could represent the London sewers, a prison, a grand hotel and a gentlemen’s club) at speed before and after each performance. There was no prospect of telling the story exactly as is handled in the book.

Between us we hit on the key to the transformation: expanding the role of the prisoner known as Freakshow, who teaches the hero how to impersonate other people and unknowingly builds the new personality which will eventually subsume his old self.

In the book, establishing that crucial relationship and takes only a few paragraphs. It is for the reader to imagine how Montmorency’s body, voice and attitudes change. In the play it will, of course, be acted out, reinforcing the message that Montmorency owes Freakshow a massive debt – and helping to support a key element of the plot which I must not reveal here.

The temptation to get deeply involved in the production process is almost irresistible, but I know I must not. Despite my earlier experience of being let down, I know that a theatrical production and a book are different beasts, and that I must give the playwrights space to deal with the demands of their medium in their own way.

They will know the strengths and weaknesses of their cast. They will need to write in episodes and business to explain motivation and cover costume changes. It is likely that several of the actors will play more than one part. That’s not at all uncommon at the Fringe, but what an exquisite problem they will have in this play.

Most of the cast will be aiming to make sure that the audience does not recognise them when they return to the stage in different clothes and with a new voice.

One, Matthew Hopkinson, who plays Scarper and Montmorency, must do the opposite. The audience must quickly get the idea that however he is dressed on stage he is the same person, presenting himself as two characters only within the confines of the play, and that the rest of the cast are in the dark about his double identity.

So watching Montmorency move from page to stage is a nerve-wracking, but exciting experience.

At this year’s book festival Hopkinson, Chris Snow (his co-writer and director) and I will be talking about how it was done, and comparing some of the scenes in the book with their counterparts in the play. I hope we will all still be friends then.

• Montmorency is at C until 27 August. Today, 7:25pm. Eleanor Updale will appear at the Book Festival today at 11am, alongside Snow and Hopkinson to talk about reshaping the book for the stage.

 

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