Dramaturg Teresa Burns on The Little Gardener

Adapting a much-loved children’s book to the stage is one thing, setting it outdoors in an interactive, large glass greenhouse, is another.

The Little Gardener by Emily Hughes, published by Flying Eye Books in 2015, tells the story of a little gardener and the garden that meant everything to him. He worked very hard but he was just too little to make a difference. Amidst all the weeds and tired foliage, one beautiful flower appears in his garden, which gives him the hope to carry on. One night, the little gardener makes a wish “for a little bit of help” and as he sleeps the local children, inspired by his beautiful flower, help bring his garden to life. The gardener wakes to find his garden in full bloom. It’s a beautiful story, rich in metaphor and poignancy.

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Image courtesy of Emily Hughes

As huge fans of Emily Hughes’ work and having worked with her previously on the stage adaption of her debut book Wild (which we work-shopped last year with great success), the release of her second book The Little Gardener set our brains-a-whirring. The book felt like prime subject material for adaptation, particularly outdoor theatre – not only because of its garden setting but because of its potent message about community and the active good-will of others. It seemed only right for the play to be set inside a large greenhouse!  An interactive greenhouse, that invites children from the audience inside to tend to the garden whilst the little gardener is sleeping.

It goes without saying that your design concept should come from a place of sincerity within your story, but this feels particularly truthful to it, as though it shouldn’t be done any other way.  It’s a production that of course presents some logistical challenges – essentially we are creating a self-contained, portable theatre space that happens to contain a live garden. It’s a challenge but one that we’re whole-heartedly embracing. It’s essential to us that the production is as visually stunning as possible – especially when considering the double-edged sword of outdoor theatre, with passers-by soon becoming audience members and quickly vice versa. The piece will also feature puppetry – in the form of the little gardener himself and his pet worm (‘Wormy’) and an original soundtrack by the enormously talented composer Darren Clark.

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Image by Eva Sampson

During this project we’re really keen to encourage children and families to embrace the outdoors and get into gardening. Gardening’s positive effect on our mental health and wellbeing is proven. The charity ‘Mind’ recently studied the views of people who regularly take part in ‘green’ activities. 94% of participants felt that these activities benefitted their mental health and lifted feelings of anxiety. Research in schools has also found that gardening is a beneficial teaching tool, radically improving children’s resilience, entrepreneurial spirit and readiness to learn.

If The Little Gardener can have a positive impact on a child’s development, in even a small way, then we have truly succeeded – whether it’s simply by working together and getting their hands dirty or challenging their expectations of what theatre can be.

The Little Gardener was produced in association with Scamp Theatre, and commissioned by Lyric Hammersmith, Watford Palace Theatre, Greenwich+Docklands International Festival and Latitude Festival. You can catch it this summer: tour dates here.

Children’s Theatre Reviews exists to help plug the gap in criticism and writing about theatre for young audiences. It is run entirely voluntarily, and needs support to continue covering and supporting the sector. For more information and to help give children’s theatre the voice it deserves, please visit our Patreon page.

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