Director Lu Kemp on The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish

AS REHEARSAL rooms go, this one has a few interesting quirks.
Rehearsals for The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. Picture: Phil WilkinsonRehearsals for The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Rehearsals for The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

As well as a partially built set and the remains of people’s lunch, there are two sinister looking stuffed rabbits and a man sawing round a picture of a sofa mounted on chipboard. And that’s before actor Veronica Leer enters at a run singing the theme song from Fame. Sometimes I think people who work in children’s theatre have too much fun.

But the fun in the Studio Theatre space in Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre is doing a good job of masking the stress. Though even the title of the National Theatre of Scotland’s new production, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, is enough to bring a smile to the face, in staging terms it’s a technically complex promenade production which will need to be adapted for every venue on its forthcoming tour. And right now, the devil is in the detail. Are there enough dirty T-shirts on the floor of Nathan’s bedroom? Do they need a backup for the sound system in Sis’s rucksack?

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The show, which adapts a graphic novel for children by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, is the fulfilment of a long-held ambition for director Lu Kemp. She is the director behind One Thousand Paper Cranes, the acclaimed children’s show about two Japanese girls who lived through the Hiroshima bomb, which will travel to New York later this year. Goldfish follows on from NTS’s hugely successful adaptation of The Wolves in the Walls, another Gaiman/McKean story, and will be the company’s debut at Imaginate, the international festival of theatre for children in Edinburgh next month.

“I absolutely love this book, and I’ve wanted to do it as a show for about seven years,” says Kemp. “It’s always been in my head to do it as a promenade performance. I think there’s something extremely exciting about thinking you are in one space and it opening out into spaces which are usually prohibited to the public, like the backstage areas and dressing rooms. Also, the centre of the story is around doing something that you shouldn’t do. That’s appealing to us at any age, but particularly when we’re small – what happens when we cross the boundary, what happens when we swap our father for two goldfish?”

Neil McKean’s dad (the central character’s name in the play pays tribute to the book’s creators) always seems to be reading the paper, so he doesn’t notice when Neil swaps him with Nathan for two goldfish. When Neil’s furious mother sends him and his little sister to get Dad back, nothing is straightforward. Nathan has swapped Dad for Vashti’s electric guitar, Vashti has swapped him for Blinky’s gorilla mask, and Blinky has swapped him for Galveston the rabbit. And pretty soon Neil and Sis’s journey is getting very strange indeed.

Kemp, who trained at Lecoq in Paris and Anne Bogart’s SITI Company in New York, has worked widely in theatre for children and adults, and in radio. It was there she met Neil Gaiman, when working on the adaptation of his book, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, for the BBC. In Goldfish, she applies theatrical tools pioneered in Fringe theatre for adults – site-specific, promenade, interactive – to theatre for a young audience, with interesting results: the children who come to see Goldfish aren’t just watching the journey of Neil and Sis, they are going on it themselves.

She does admit that putting a young audience in a position where they are free to interact with the actors is, well, a little bit dangerous. “We’ve done some practice runs with children and some of them have been hilarious. Yesterday, Ros (Sydney, one of the actors) nearly got mauled by a bunch of kids looking for Galveston the rabbit.

“I think the magical thing about working with children is that they don’t have any set expectations for what they’re about to see. I really enjoy making work for children because you can be form-breaking, or a bit radical with what you choose to do. I did a show called Titus last year for age ten-plus, which was 40-minute monologue where the performer stands on a table. It felt a bit dangerous, but the kids completely went with it. I think, in general, young audiences defy our expectations of what they enjoy and what they will be able to manage.”

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Kemp believes Imaginate, which brings in acclaimed children’s theatre from other countries as well as showcasing the best home-grown work, has helped make children’s theatre in Scotland the most adventurous in the UK. Working as part of the front-of-house team at the festival when she was a student, Kemp was inspired to make theatre for children as well as adults – as other young theatre-makers have been, after encountering work at the festival.

“The continent is way ahead of us in what they’re prepared to allow children to see and negotiate, I’ve seen things there that have really surprised me, and also made me question whether we are a bit too protective of children sometimes. Another thing Imaginate does really well is it promotes the idea of theatre for young people as theatre for everybody. The majority of the work at the festival works just as well for adults as it does for children, it’s just about having the conversation in a slightly different way. I’m not sure that the divisions we make between the two are very helpful.”

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She cites the change in attitude to books in the last decade with the emergence of “crossover fiction” – novels for young people which are enjoyed by adults, sometimes with the benefit of a “grown-up” cover design.

“There have always been brilliant books for young people by writers like Ursula Le Guin and Alan Garner. They were regarded as children’s books, but they were incredibly sophisticated, very challenging books, where the only difference really is the length – and maybe it’s no bad thing to learn to be economic with your storytelling.”

She believes that lessons from children’s theatre can be applied to adult theatre too, and vice versa. “And part of what I love about children’s theatre is that you’re explaining a theme or an idea but your hand is pushed to make that exploration fun. I think sometimes with adult theatre we forget that making something fun is a really good way of having a conversation about it.”

• The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish opens at the Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, on Saturday (with previews from tonight) then tours to Livingston, Edinburgh, Stirling, Glasgow and Inverness. A swap shop will be held every Saturday. See for details. Imaginate runs from 6-13 May at various venues.