David Almond has adapted his novel The Savage for the stage, in a full length commission for Newcastle’s Live Theatre. A contemporary fable about creation and renewal, wildness and civilisation The Savage shows the importance of creativity in finding consolation, redemption and fulfilment in the world around us.
Geraldine Brennan watched it for Books for Keeps.
David Almond’s story of Blue Baker, whose grief and rage at losing his father creates a terrifying but necessary monster within, is a slim volume inseparable in readers’ minds from Dave McKean’s illustrations.
In Max Roberts’ production, the savage has gone on the rampage and fully exploited the key theme of the healing power of creating stories. The Savage is a story about creating a story, and in a series of visits to Blue’s classroom we get to lift the bonnet and look at the engine as, in the teacher Mrs Molloy’s words, the story finds its shape. If this story was a sausage sandwich, as Blue’s friend Leonard suggests, it would be supersized and multi layered, spilling fried onions and Leonard’s beloved brown sauce.
As Blue’s journey as a writer unfolds, echoes of Almond’s other works, especially Kit’s Wilderness and My Name is Mina, reflect his philosophy of creativity and education. The world of the writer is shown as full of frustrations and inexplicable turbulence, but these make the breakthroughs even more joyful. Mrs Molloy’s nurturing and adventurous classroom provides the creative jumpstart that Almond clearly believes every child deserves. He’s given Blue two new friends to help him on his quest: football-mad and ultra enthusiastic Leonard and fiercely loving Elaine, a counterpart of Allie in Kit’s Wilderness, who proves to be a fount of eternal wisdom with her tale of a lost boy in the wilderness.
Designer Alison Ashton has brought the nearby Tyne riverfront into the theatre with Blue’s story appearing to be written on the tidal waters of the Tyne and drawn on the cave walls. As Blue and Elaine look over the estuary, we share Elaine’s sense of ‘Stuff from centuries ago mixed up with everything that’s now in all of us’.
The intensely physical ensemble prowls and cavorts through Blue’s story, as the savage explodes through actor Dean Bone’s body. Some of the finest moments come when Blue’s classmates and teacher become part of his tribe, drawing rhythm from the earth, and share the savagery fuelled by Beth Brennan’s haunting electro-folk music.
Dani Arlington plays both the chirpily upbeat Mrs Molloy and Blue’s mother, reaching out to her troubled son through her own grief, with passionate tenderness. Adam Welsh creates a line-up of strong characters from inadequate bully Hopper to Blue’s late father, a mild-mannered David Bowie fan who meets anger with understanding. Kate Okello is both a compelling Elaine and an effervescent child Jess, Blue’s sister who loves dancing, and Maurice Sendak.
Blue says writing is ‘a way to stop being you, to go into the ancient cave with everyone who’s ever existed’ but through this visceral production we see Blue becoming truly himself. At first seemingly immune to the parallel supports of school and home, he finds his way back from his journey with the savage in the time-honoured way of coming out of his cave to share a story. Even if we don’t have a Mrs Molloy in our lives, this production reminds us that we’ve certainly got a savage.
Live Theatre has chosen the first week of the show to launch Live Tales, its new creative writing centre offering free story-writing workshops to key stage 2 children. Blue would love it.
The Savage is at Live Theatre until July 30.
The Savage, David Almond illus Dave McKean, Walker Books, 978-1-4063-1985-9, £5.99 pbk