Quercus Ensemble and Roddy Doyle perform at the inaugural children's book festival in Derry~Londonderry
Frank Cottrell Boyce – author of the The Return of Colmcille, the centrepiece of the UK City of Culture celebrations in June – has spoken passionately and often about the importance of children and adults sharing the joy of reading together, when magic is created as the spoken words and the story mingle with the imagination.
Such magic was evident at two opening events of Derry~Londonderry’s inaugural Humdinger! Children's Book Festival, organised by the maiden city’s own award-winning children’s media company Dog Ears.
The three-day festival launched with events across the city on World Book Day, Thursday, March 7. And the first morning saw Dublin-based author Roddy Doyle, as well as the Quercus Ensemble, performing at the Playhouse.
Doyle's reading is a low-key affair. No bells and whistles, just a casually-dressed man with a microphone and some books interacting with a couple of hundred children squeezed into the theatre. Doyle's approach shows that, if you’ve got a good story, you don’t really need anything more. A yarn well-told will captivate and transport.
Doyle is not a flamboyant performer. He stays behind a lectern, stumbles over the odd phrase here and there, and doesn’t really put on anything in the way of funny voices. But he neither speaks down or up to his audience. The assembled readers are never patronised nor revered. It is like we are his pals, his equals.
In a question and answer session, Doyle chuckles if a question is a bit daft, but answers anyway, and dispenses advice and experience. He states things simply. 'I love reading,' he says. There is encouragement and challenge too. 'If you can read and write, you’re a writer. But you need to write regularly, not just now and then.'
There is no dumbing down when he is asked about his favourite authors: Charles Dickens, Anne Tyler and Richard Ford. He listens to himself too, and checks things with his audience. 'Am I making sense?' he asks at one point, humbly.
The stories, of course, are the stars of the show. Doyle reads extracts from three of his beloved children's books, beginning with A Greyhound of a Girl. Here Doyle is clever, starting from the opening chapter, introducing the main characters, and luring and intriguing his audience from the off.
He reads to attentive silence, broken only by chuckles, met by expressions of curiosity and recognition. A Greyhound of a Girl is a rich and warm novel that deals with mortality, love and hope. The audience loves it, but not as much as the next one, which doesn’t contain quite so many references to dog poo.
The Giggler Treatment was Doyle’s first book for children. He explains how the idea came about, and his process for writing, and is again clever when he reads aloud. A volunteer is selected to shout 'Shut up!' after exactly ten minutes, and there Doyle stops, mid-sentence.
This extract is playful, engaging and fun, albeit with an edge, and Doyle shows how a writer can break the rules or make up their own, so long as the reader accepts it. He finishes with his current work, provisionally entitled Brilliant, which is at times funny, at times sinister.
Malevolence, threat, naughtiness and humour are on offer at another of the opening events of the Humdinger! festival. This is a performance of Roald Dahl's Little Red Riding Hood. In this version, however, Grandmama is a nasty old crone from Belfast with a raging thirst, and the wolf is too dim to realise that Red Riding Hood keeps a revolver in her underwear and has a taste for wolfskin jackets.
The story is told in a combination of words and music, composed by Paul Patterson and played by the Quercus Ensemble, made up of young Irish musicians, one of whom, artistic director Kim Vaughan, hails from Derry. It is a narrated performance, and all parts are played by Derry actor, Sara Dylan.
This adaptation of Little Red Riding Hood is an absolute delight, a lovely blend of panto – 'I said, hello boys and girls!' – classic story with a twist, and a young person’s guide to classical music.
It is performed in a large room on the first floor of the Playhouse. At one end is the orchestra and narrator. Any adults in the audience are squeezed round the sides, with the children – many in costume for World Book Day – on the floor in the centre.
Apart from one projected Quentin Blake image (which no-one takes much notice of) the walls are bare. Except that they aren’t, because the words and the music transforms the space into a thick, dark, dangerous, magical forest. Such is the power of art.
The audience of children is still and rapt throughout, no fidgeting or complaints of boredom, everyone captivated by the music and the narrative, which switches easily from rhyme to prose. The Quercus Ensemble play with clarity and precision, and plenty of heart, drawing out the richness and beauty of the music wonderfully.
These will surely be two highlights of the Humdinger! Children's Book Festival, which runs until Saturday, March 9. For lovers of literature, song and performance, Derry~Londonderry is the place to be this weekend as the City of Culture celebrations continue apace.