whats on

How a trip to London Zoo helped bring Lionboy trilogy to the stage

The stage version of Zizou's Corder's hugely popular fantasy books is about to begin a world tour at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre

Lionboy by Complicite (photo by Mark Douet)

Lionboy is about to embark on a world tour but bringing Zizou Corder's much-loved books to life on stage was no easy task, including a trip to London Zoo to see the big cats face-to-face.

The fantasy novels in which a boy's ability to talk to cats helps him rescue his parents and free the world from the clutches of a sinister organisation have captured the imagination of young readers worldwide.

After a successful national tour last year, the stage version, which was four years in the making, begins its world tour at Kilburn's Tricycle Theatre next Wednesday (December 17).

Co-director Clive Mendus, who also plays the boss of the villainous corporation at the play's heart, told how the team had spent hours studying big cats on nature documentaries, culminating with a trip to see them in the flesh at London Zoo.

"We went in with the keeper to watch them being fed, and seeing these huge creature with paws the size of dinner plates so close gave us a sense of their immense power," he says.

"It was clear early on we didn't want to have human beings imitating lions because they're built differently and it would look silly having someone running around on all fours.

"Instead, we wanted the cast to capture that leonine essence in their voices and posture when they became the cats in the storytelling process. There's something about the very straight, proud way in which these kings of the savannah sit that's unmistakable."

As Clive explains, the books began life as a story told by a mother to her 10-year-old daughter, who would decide what should happen at key junctures. Zizou Corder is a hybrid of their names in recognition of the youngster's contribution.

He believes that creative process was key to the story's appeal because, as he puts it, 'this came from a child's imagination and children know what they like'.

Despite being aimed at children, the trilogy, which has been condensed into a two-hour play, deals with some very adult themes like globalisation and global warming.

In the futuristic setting, oil resources have dried up and petrol powered cars are the reserve of a rich elite, while a pharmacological mega-power seeks to infect people to fuel demand for its wares.

"These are big issues in modern society and we didn't want to water down the politics in the books," says Clive.

"There's a macro political view expressed in the play that we hope will get children thinking as they go on to create the future of the world, but this isn't a piece of indoctrination, it's an epic adventure story."

Lionboy has been brought to the stage by Complicite - the company which blended complex, sinuous plots with spectacular visuals to such great effect in shows like The Master and Margarita and A Disappearing Number.

Their latest production is no different, featuring juggling and a thrilling acrobatic routine on the hoops from the circus performers with whom our hero Charlie travels the globe.

The book's sense of playfulness is also retained, with one of the lions, Sergei, modelled not on the beasts of the African plains but on a friend of the author's from Wigan.

* Lionboy is at the Tricycle Theatre from December 17 to January 10, before heading to destinations including New York, Hong Kong and Korea. Tickets for the Tricycle are available at www.tricycle.co.uk or from the box office on 020 7328 1000.

View full mobile page