When Jessica Swale was approached about revisiting her enchanting adaptation of children’s favourite Stig of the Dump for Grosvenor Park she leapt at the chance. The playwright immediately saw the possibilities in the suggestion by the show’s energetic director Harry Jardine that its young hero Barney should be Deaf. “I thought, it actually makes more sense, it makes the story more poignant,” she explains. “It’s a story of a young boy who has to stay with his grandparents, he’s dropped into a new school and can’t make friends because he finds it difficult to communicate and is an outsider. It felt like a great opportunity to explore this issue, but in a sensitive way without disturbing the bone structure of the original story.”
That meant not just tweaking the script but actually creating a new one within that ‘bone structure’ to make this Stig a very different experience for anyone who may have seen it previously. “It’s still about family and it’s still about love and understanding and acceptance,” she says. “But it also allows us to investigate this very important issue and share that with the audience. The design is totally different, the music is totally different, and it’s a different way of telling that story – but it has even more heart and soul.”
Jessica’s original adaptation of Stig of the Dump charmed Grosvenor Park audiences over the summer of 2016.But the 40-year-old’s association with Storyhouse and the park actually goes back the best part a decade to when the then artistic director Alex Clifton first approached her about working with the organisation. Out of that came her adaption of The Secret Garden.
Training originally as a director, she had recently started writing, producing her original play Blue Stockings for Shakespeare’s Globe, and beginning what would become the award-winning Nell Gwynn. “I remember I was very busy,” she recalls. “Alongside that I was adapting various stories, and I was directing too. And I’d just started exploring film as well. I think I was writing the Horrible History movie at that time, and it was that which made Alex think. “He knew the tone of the work I liked to make was fundamentally optimistic and hopeful with a good sprinkling of comedy. But also, I always try and make heartfelt work because I really believe in the power of entertainment as a force for good, and the value of that in its own right.”
That outlook was also inspired by her father who was terminally ill with cancer at the time and refused to watch anything that was morbid or depressing. Jessica says: “I made a resolution at that point that I only wanted to make life affirming work that he would have enjoyed. So that’s been my aim ever since, that I’d like people to leave the theatre feeling a little bit more positive about life, and hopefully understanding something about humanity a little bit more, or having been asked to think about it, which is where Stig comes in.”
If her father was important in informing her outlook on storytelling, it appears working on this production of Stig of the Dump has also changed the way Jessica approaches it too. She admits she had her eyes opened in the rehearsal room, particularly about the way in which Deaf and hard of hearing people are often “badly catered for” both by stage and screen where subtitles are deemed sufficiently inclusive – despite many who are Deaf having enormous difficulties learning to read.
“It’s really changed the way I think and the way I want to work in the future,” she says. “I feel enormously privileged to have the opportunity to have my eyes opened by this experience, and I feel like everybody who’s involved in it will never go back; we all know now the importance of making sure our work is fully accessible and understanding a little bit more about what that means.”
And Jessica certainly has plenty of opportunities to do that. She’s in huge demand both as a writer and director and is currently juggling a host of theatre and film projects including writing two stage musicals and directing the film adaptation of Nell Gwynn and a cinematic version of Jo Baker’s bestselling novel Longbourn – which tells the story of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the servants. Then there is a television comedy series for Sony and Left Bank (the company behind The Crown) inspired by the Heath Ledger film A Knight’s Tale which she is both writing and directing. But despite all that, along with the prospect of directing a film in New York later this year, Stig of the Dump remains a project particularly close to her heart. She smiles: “It’s not often I revisit a play that I’ve done before, but this is the one that fills my heart with joy in terms of the existence of it as a piece of work. “I feel really privileged to be asked, and very happy to work with Storyhouse as often as they’ll have me.”
Interviewed by Catherine Jones