The one-man creative industry that is David Almond has been progressing from purple patch to purpler patch since the 1999 publication of Skellig.
The prolific and talented author has written stories for all ages, garnered awards and seen his work adapted for theatre, film and opera (only last week we learned of his football-themed opera libretto for Sunderland).
In a Hexham church, where a raft lies on the carpeted floor, actors are engaged in the latest Almond-inspired enterprise – a stage version of his third published novel, Heaven Eyes, which is to premiere at Alnwick Playhouse ahead of a regional tour.
It is the work of Théâtre sans Frontières (TSF), the Hexham theatre company known for physical and inventive productions which have helped countless children get to grips with foreign languages.
In the novel, three orphans take to the Tyne on a raft. They are rescued from the river by a mysterious child, Heaven Eyes, who helps them off a mud bank and into the building – home to an old printing press – where she lives with ‘Grampa’.
Beguilingly, Almond blends everyday life’s muck and mischief with an intangible sense of magic and mystery. From Heaven Eyes, the children learn about ghosts.
It is a surprise, given TSF’s record, to hear the actors in the church speaking lines in English as opposed to Spanish or French but there is a foreign language aspect to this production.
While five of the actors are from the North East or based here, the sixth, Maria Lindh, who plays Heaven Eyes, is Swedish.
A Swedish dimension to Heaven Eyes might surprise fans of the novel but there’s a good reason for it.
Sarah Kemp, who co-founded TSF with John Cobb, says the seed for the new production was sown when Hexham Book Festival asked them to host a ‘page-to-stage’ workshop based on an Almond novel.
“David suggested some books we might read and we thought Heaven Eyes was really interesting with lots of visual elements to it.
“We ran some workshops at the Queen’s Hall and improvised some scenes around it. David came in and it was a fun session.”
Then Sarah and John were part of a delegation to Gothenburg, designed to strengthen links between Sweden and the North East, and entered into talks with a Swedish theatre company.
John led some student drama workshops in Gothenburg based on scenes from Heaven Eyes and the idea for a full production started to take shape.
David had already adapted his book for the stage but TSF fancied a Swedish angle to suit their newfound potential collaborators.
“We thought Heaven Eyes was perfect,” says Sarah. “In the book we don’t know where the character Heaven Eyes comes from but she speaks in a strange way.
“We thought it would make sense, if she was from across the sea, that she came from Sweden. That would explain why she speaks in this pidgin-style English.”
David found the idea interesting and duly amended his script, working closely with TSF. “He is very generous,” says Sarah.
The play, she explains, is aimed at an age group that is relatively ill-served by the theatre. “There is a huge amont of work for the under nines but less for children between nine and 13.”
Sarah and John Cobb, director, have assembled a talented team to Heaven Eyes to the stage.
A beautiful set has been designed by Alison Ashton, there’s music by Ken Patterson, lighting by Kevin James, puppetry by Alison McGowan and film by Christo Wallers and Mike Edwick.
While the adult parts are played by Sarah and North East actor Paddy Burton (Grampa), the children are played by actors in their twenties, of whom Natalie Ann Jamieson (Erin Law), Lawrence Neale (January Carr) and Robert Nicholson (Mouse Gullane) are from the region.
“I was familiar with David Almond’s work,” says Natalie. “I’d read a couple of his books and a friend of mine did Skellig for the stage. They took it to New York.”
Maria, who lives in Malmö and auditioned for the part of Heaven Eyes in Sweden, says: “Heaven Eyes is a really mystical character and I like that quality.
“When she is awake she speaks English but her speech is all broken up when she’s asleep. The words are Swedish but she can’t speak properly in long sentences.”
Maria, who studied physical theatre in America and Copenhagen, demonstrates that Swedish is not light years away from English (‘håll min hand’ is ‘hold my hand’) or even Geordie (the word for ‘thud’ is ‘duns’ which is close to our dialect word ‘dunsh’).
TSF, which is to lose regular Arts Council funding in April, faces an uncertain future. “We’re going to have to review how we operate because without core funding we won’t be able to run the office and maintain the level of staffing,” says Sarah.
“Because we have always done national touring our audience is wide and disparate but we have had about 80 letters of support.”
The TSF board believe they could secure their future if they manage to find a partner or partners to join them in developing the Goods Shed at Hexham Station as a base.
Architecture firm _space has drawn up plans for a £1.5m conversion to benefit the theatre company and others, becoming a resource for arts, heritage, cultural and commercial use. Details can be found at www.tsf.org.uk
TSF could do with the financial equivalent of that Heaven Eyes raft. Fans of good theatre will hope they get it.
The play opens at Alnwick Playhouse on October 16 and 17. Box office: 01665 510785. It then tours to Eastgate Theatre, Peebles (18); Queen’s Hall Arts Centre, Hexham (21, 22); Arts Centre Washington (23); Caedmon Hall, Gateshead, as part of Juice (28, 29); Kirkgate Centre, Cockermouth (November 7); and Phoneix Theatre, Blyth (Nov 11).