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Once upon a Gruffalo...

As Tall Stories' adaptation has its 15th birthday, company co-directors Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell explain how The Gruffalo arrived onstage


Once upon a time in 1997, we founded Tall Stories to take a couple of low-budget shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time we didn't have a target audience – we just wanted to tell good stories. We also both had full-time jobs, so we worked on the shows in our spare time.

The stories we chose that year were based on Alice in Wonderland and Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince – so some people brought children along. And after the shows some of those people said how great it was that the shows didn't talk down to the children. We were a bit confused because we didn't think that the shows were for children, but we took it as a compliment and then decided to produce some shows specifically for a family audience.

In 1999 we had a particular success with a dark version of Snow White for the 6-plus age group. The show ended up touring to the Scottish International Children's Festival, the National Theatre and Broadway. That same year, when we decided to create a show for the younger 3-plus age group, inspiration struck. At that time, Toby was working for Macmillan Children's Books, who had just published a book by the recently formed author/illustrator duo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

The original low-budget 2001 tour involved three actors in a car (not even a stage manager!)

That book was The Gruffalo – and we loved it instantly. The story, the rhymes, the illustrations – all worked together perfectly. So we asked for the rights to adapt it for the stage. Little did we know how things would turn out!

The original low-budget 2001 tour involved three actors in a car (not even a stage manager!) touring to schools and small venues. But after the performance at the second of those venues (the Brighton Komedia) they asked if we'd bring the show back to them at Christmas – and we started thinking we might have a hit on our hands...

For the next few years, the show played small to mid-scale venues all over the UK (including the Cathedral Space at London's National Theatre), and also toured abroad to Canada and America (including various Canadian children's festivals and Broadway). It was also filmed for DVD by the Really Useful Group.

In 2005, we scaled the set up and (in partnership with Kenny Wax and Nick Brooke) started taking the show to larger UK venues – including London's West End. By now we had both given up our other jobs and were working for Tall Stories full time – on large-scale and small-scale shows, a pattern that continues to this day, as befits Tall Stories' status as a registered charity.

Over the last ten years The Gruffalo has toured internationally to Ireland, Poland, North America, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Dubai, New Zealand and Australia (including the Sydney Opera House). We have co-produced a Spanish-language production in Chile and co-directed a German-language production in Bonn. We're currently working on translations into Icelandic, Xhosa (for South Africa) and both Hebrew and Arabic for Israel.

Olivia Jacobs (Director), Axel Scheffler (Ilustrator), Julia Donaldson (Author) and Toby Mitchell (Creative Producer) at The Gruffalo's 15th birthday
(© Dan Wooller)

And the show has continued to develop. Only last year we reworked the set, costumes and parts of the structure – to great reactions from audiences and press in the West End. And we have created and toured many other shows nationally and internationally along the way – making a total of 27 original shows since 1997.

On this fifteenth anniversary of the first performance of The Gruffalo, we'd like to thank everyone who's been involved in the show – cast, crew, designers, composers, administrative teams (including our current general managers KWFE), venues, Macmillan Children's Books – and of course Julia and Axel, for trusting us with their book in the first place! We've been told that it's the longest-running show for the 3-plus age group – we're very proud of it and we look forward to the next 15 years!

By Olivia Jacobs and Toby Mitchell, Tall Stories co-directors

The Gruffalo runs at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue from 6 July until 4 September 2016