TAITMAIL How Wonder Boy and Captain Chatter are breaking the funding mould

There’s a mystical charm about how Ross Willis’s play Wonder Boy is being got on national tour that is counterintuitively uplifting in this worst of times for the arts economy. A play, whose subject matter you would think would make it out of the question for any hard-pressed presenting house, is going to get a 12-week 11 theatre tour, with a message its supporters are saying should get it into the national curriculum.

Wonder Boy is Willis’s second play to be produced, after the multi-award winning darkly funny fairy tale Wolfie of 2019, which had critics acclaiming him as “a fresh and fearless voice” in British theatre. He is already part of the Royal Court’s New Playwrights programme.
 
The play, actually in the Bristol Old Vic development system since 2016, is a feel-good story about a 12-year-old stammerer, Sonny, who is locked into his own world, unable to communicate or even speak his own name, terrified of small talk and of being asked a question, as he confronts the most terrifying experience of all: starting at a new school. The nightmare becomes even worse when his new head teacher casts him in the school production of Hamlet.
 
Sonny is a character many young people will identify with for different reasons. A foster child, he has an imaginary friend, a superhero called Captain Chatter who is actually his nemesis whose mission is to stop the boy communicating and so keep him safe in his familiar lonely world. A development in the production process has been that Captain Chatter is to be played by a deaf actor as a character who can speak but uses exaggerated gestures, including British sign language, to add to the drama and comedy. In his new school Sonny makes a friend, Roshi, a free spirit with some of the funniest lines, who is also an incorrigible bully, adding another dimension to the social realism of the piece.

Caption: Raphel Famotibe as Sonny in the original Bristol Old Vic production. Photo credit: Steve Tanner

The tour is happening thanks to a rare, possibly unique, funding structure spearheaded by a commercial theatre touring company, PW Productions, working with Arts Council England and the 11 mid-scale venues. For this PW is stepping away from its tried and successful practice of finding its own material and creating long-standing successful tours - The Woman in Black, and An Inspector Calls are both PW shows, hand-picked by the company’s founder, Peter Wilson - after an instinctive risk taken by its producer, Zoe Simpson.
 
The enterprise is not only a logistical brain scrambler, it’s an expensive gamble for which £500,000 had to be raised to set the tour up and another half million to keep it on the road for its three months, with investment from PW and the ACE-funded partner the Bristol Old Vic (BOV) where the play had it is premiere last spring. Wilson put his weight behind the gamble, says Simpson: “Peter was really positive from the start, and it was personally gratifying that he respected my instincts on it” she says. She knew that the funding was finally in place in September, the day before Wilson died of cancer, knowing that his last project was assured.

The key to the funding mix was the Arts Council’s positive response to Simpson’s application for funding, and it is contributing £660,000 from its National Lottery Project Grants Programme, drawn in, says ACE’s director of touring Hannah Lake, by being “a production that has inclusivity and relevance at its core”.  Charlotte Geeves, the BOV’s executive director, believes the way the play has grown and a longer life secure has been especially gratifying, and a tribute to the theatre’s policy of encouraging young talent (Willis is a Bristolian). “The partnership is a great example of how the commercial and subsidised sectors can collaborate to bring the best new, exciting drama to a much wider audience” she says. And a tricky part of the deal is to keep ticket prices to an average affordable £15.
 
Simpson had read positive reviews of the BOV’s production and was able to see a matinée towards the end of its run in March 2022. She found a mixed audience: next to her was a group of year sevens slightly abashed by the rich but authentic language; behind her some 20-year-olds; nearby, youngsters with learning disabilities; then some grey hairs; some habitual matinée goers. A whole spectrum. “Fantastic” she says, “and it’s a genuinely good play, really funny, entertaining, vibrant, it felt to me like a piece that could work between schoolchildren and the drama crowd, and that’s what I could see around me”. Before leaving the theatre she rang her boss, PW’s CEO Ian Gillie, who gave her the go-ahead to start a conversation about taking it in. 
 
As it happens, Simpson has a particular connection with the play’s theme. Her grandmother was Eileen Way, a familiar face on TV and stage for decades, and it was not until after her death in 1994 that Simpson discovered she had become an actress because her parents had sent her to drama school – to cure her debilitating stammer.
 
The tour has not yet been cast, but the director will again be the Olivier-winning Sally Cookson. It will start its tour at the BOV in September and move on to the Liverpool Playhouse, Shrewsbury Theatre, the Wolverhampton Grand, the Blackpool Grand, the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Derby Theatre, York Theatre Royal, Southampton’s Mayflower Studios, The Lowry in Salford, ending in November at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate. Each of them has an outreach programme that links with schools, the NHS, social services and youth groups, giving a degree of box office surety. A tricky part of the deal, therefore, has been to keep ticket prices to an average affordable £15.
 
“It would be completely wonderful if a play like this was in the curriculum” says Simpson, who started her career at the Theatre Royal Stratford East as the assistant of the great champion of inclusivity in theatre, Philip Hedley. “It’s fantastic for Ross’s career and a big challenge for us. We’re going to throw everything at it, engaging children and young people beyond the comfort zone.”
 

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