The Almeida’s first ever family show is an intriguing project. Marianne Dreams, based on a 1958 novel by Catherine Storr, is neither panto, nor musical, nor straight drama. Unusually, it combines drama, dance and music – coordinated by director/choreographer Will Tuckett – to tell the other-worldly story of 10-year-old Marianne, who discovers that what she draws comes to life in her dreams.
Playing the lead is 26-year-old Selina Chilton, for whom this production is a chance to use her dance training as well as flexing acting muscles honed in a variety of musical and dramatic roles, including this year’s The Drowsy Chaperone. Chilton chats to Caroline Bishop about playing a 10-year-old and creating a dream world…
Why did you want to do this show?
Selina Chilton: I loved the script basically, and I love the venue. I’ve wanted to work here for some time now so it was just a great opportunity to work on something really imaginative and very different for the Christmas audience I think.
Describe the show – what is it about?
SC: Well first of all it’s not a story that someone conventionally knows – it’s not Dick Whittington, it’s not Aladdin, it doesn’t have any roots in pantomime, nor does it have any roots in a play that’s known previous to now. It’s a brand new play that is based on a novel by Catherine Storr.
It’s essentially five actors with elements of dance and movement, particularly within the dream sequences. The director/choreographer Will Tuckett made a very interesting comment on day one, which is that he wanted, in an ideal world, that no one actually comments on the dance after they’ve seen this piece, that it just seems to be completely natural, that it seems a very logical step for Marianne, for example, to move in that way when she experiences this dream world. But there’s also lots of underscoring [background music] within the piece, which is so fun to work with because it creates such an atmosphere. It makes many of the scenes a little easier to feel, because you have that backup of an atmosphere created by music. It draws the audience in; it weaves the yarn even more effectively.
This is the Almeida’s first family show…
SC: It’s a family show with a twist. It could perhaps be better described as a play for adults that kids will really get and hopefully really love, as opposed to a play for schools or a play for children. It’s got a very universal appeal.
Was the dancing element attractive to you?
SC: Yeah, I mean it’s great fun to get to do that. I danced a lot when I was a child, and then since I’ve been a professional, the musicals I’ve done haven’t necessarily been dance shows. There’s been little bits of dance in them, which was handy, because I was trained when I was young, but I liked the idea of a play that incorporates ideas of movement.
Tell me about Marianne – what is she like?
SC: She’s a bit of a handful. She’s an only child, as am I. I think I understand her plight. She has a wild imagination, as lots of 10-year-old girls do – but her particularly. She’s as bright as a button, I think she’s a little bit older for her years perhaps, though she’s still very playful and very excited certainly. She contracts a really rather serious illness during the play – that’s the backdrop of it. Not fatal, but something that will take several months for her to recover from. But the way in which she copes with that is really rather brave and matter of fact – she’s tough. She can be a little selfish I suppose, and she certainly wears her emotions on her sleeve. But she’s also really rather kind and very helpful. On her travels in her dream world she meets a little boy called Mark, a little bit older than her, whose illness is actually much worse than hers – he can’t walk, he has polio – and the way in which she helps him and relates to him is really very touching.
So you identify with her because she’s an only child?
SC: I would imagine so yeah. It’s not your fault that you’re an only child, but there’s no competition involved when you’re growing up. You don’t have to share anything. So it’s not that when asked you wouldn’t share something, it just wouldn’t necessarily occur to you straight away I think. Equally you’re used to coming up with your own forms of entertainment. I imagine that because she’s an only child she doesn’t have an immediate peer of a similar age. She creates these worlds and these imaginations because she has to – she doesn’t have anything tangible to play with or occupy her mind with.
You’re 26. How do you play a 10-year-old?
SC: It can be tricky. You can certainly go too far with it and you can also not go far enough with it – because we really want to believe that this girl is 10. Generally speaking, when you tell an audience this girl is 10 they will believe you. But it’s written so well and she uses really brilliant language, so really I can let the writing do quite a lot of the work.
I think I spend the majority of it in my pyjamas, so that can age you down. But also the way in which you move – it tends to be much freer than we would ordinarily be, and less inhibited, especially because there are elements of dance. I’d like to play with the idea that she is a very physical character who isn’t afraid to run and jump and dance around.
If you could create your own dreams, what would you dream about?
SC: Flying! Funnily enough they sort of do fly at the end. I suppose if I were to have a special power it would certainly be that.
Did you go to the theatre as a child?
SC: Probably not that much. I remember seeing a production of Blood Brothers when I was quite young, that came to Leicester, where I’m from, and funnily enough there were lots of adults playing children in that. I remember the energy with which people threw themselves into these performances, and the conviction and the pace. I think those three things, especially when you are creating a piece of really imaginative, symbolic and stylised theatre, they really help it rattle through. Especially when you are having to entertain people whose attention spans may not be as long as other people’s, to throw yourself into it with that amount of vigour is a good thing.
Did you want to be in theatre growing up?
SC: I think I was always a bit of an exhibitionist. I remember doing impressions. I trained as a dancer as a child, and then I went to Arts Educational at 16 and did a course in acting, singing and dancing. When I was 19 I was very fortunate to get my first job and that happened to be a play. But then throughout the last seven years it’s been a real mixed bag of stuff – a few musicals, a few plays, a little bit of telly, and what I love about it is that I can mix those three things up. If somebody asked me what I was I’d say that I’m an actor that sometimes dances and sometimes sings, but it’s great that I have those other two strings to my bow, because the range of work is increased, and it’s great fun to do different things.
Your last role was in The Drowsy Chaperone [as Kitty] – why do you think that didn’t last very long in London?
SC: I loved it. Just a shame that other people didn’t quite go for it. It was supposed to run for the year but it was two months. The frustrating thing about that was that 99 per cent of people who came to see it really loved it, but unfortunately that doesn’t matter, it’s simply about selling tickets. It seems to me in the West End at the moment that there has to be some sort of hook in your production, whether that’s a reality TV star or it’s based in a film or based on a book… whereas The Drowsy Chaperone was completely and utterly original with a very strange title, which was part of the gag. But it just didn’t quite take off. But I thought it was great and I had a great time working on it.
Would you like to do more family theatre?
SC: I don’t see why not. I think that family theatre has a real place and I think that if it’s not patronising or clichéd or has been done before – and this production is certainly none of those things – I think that it could be a really exciting thing to work on. Because theatre really should be as universal as possible. I’m really looking forward to seeing what the audience reaction is going to be like for this, and if it’s a positive one then I’m sure that I won’t want to leave it there.
Marianne Dreams plays at the Almeida from 14 December-19 January.