The Enormous Crocodile

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Leeds Playhouse
Elliotte Williams-N'Dure (The Enormous Crocodile) in rehearsals. Photography by Manuel Harlan

Ten puppet-makers have spent three months creating twenty puppets for this joyful musical of Roald Dahl's The Enormous Crocodile, with the world premiere at Leeds Playhouse between 6th December 2023 and 6th January 2024. In this blog post Director Emily Lim and Co-Director and Puppetry Designer Toby Olié talk about this new family musical and working with puppets.

Tell us about the genesis of The Enormous Crocodile as a musical and how you decided puppetry was the best way to tell the story?  

Emily: After almost five years we never thought it would take that long to adapt a very short picture book! It's been an epic, gradual process of working out how to make the story live as a piece of musical theatre, honoring the original but being radical with new ideas where we felt it would help enhance the spirit and clarity of the material. We decided very early on that puppetry would give the children in the audience the most magical, fun
experience of the jungle animals. Meeting Toby and his wild imagination was a real turning point in understanding how hilarious and inspiring this added dimension could be. 

What have been some joys and challenges of developing not only a new musical, but a new musical with puppets?

Emily: It's a really exciting new form for me bringing all these elements together. The puppets behave in a totally different way, of course, to human actors! So, finding the alchemy between our performers and their puppets in these early rehearsals has been an essential part of the process, and
working out what the puppets can do. How do these puppets sing? How do these puppets groove? How does this one particular puppet bounce around on a trampoline? Our company are amazing, juggling so many different skills.

Toby,  tell us about the first puppet you made.

Toby: I was six and in my dinosaur phase and I remember seeing a ‘How to make puppets’ book in my school’s library with an amazing dinosaur
puppet on the cover. I took the book home and immediately asked my parents to help me round up the materials to make it: an egg box, bottle tops and a woollen sleeve from an old jumper. This then ultimately spiralled into my family saving any ‘useful’ bits of cardboard or fabric for future creations.  

When did you realise you wanted to be a puppet designer and director?

Toby: Having studied both art and drama at school, puppetry felt like such a natural meeting point for these mediums, so I started looking at theatre design degree courses with puppetry modules. It was then I discovered an entire puppetry degree course (now sadly not running) at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, which I was lucky enough to get onto. The course really equipped me as a theatre-maker as well as performer, so I knew very early on after graduating that I wanted to make my own work as well as puppeteer.  

How does working with puppets affect the way you direct performers?  

Toby: My aim is to direct a puppet like they are another performer in the room. Initially, there are technical challenges as the performers are learning how to operate their puppet and speak or sing through it, but once these new skills are imbedded and their confidence grows the performers can
start to improvise and make offers as the puppet. It’s then that the characters feel like they’re their own presence in rehearsals. 

Emily: It has to be a shared job between Toby and I – we need to work very closely to understand how best to tell each beat of the story. We're essentially creating a visual score of the piece as we work through the text. It's also, of course, a huge amount of fun – we're laughing a lot in rehearsals as we watch people transform into everything from coconut trees to a giant curry pot. 

 Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings (Humpy Rumpy) in rehearsals for The Enormous Crocodile. Photography by Manuel Harlan
Lawrence Hodgson-Mullings (Humpy Rumpy) in rehearsals for The Enormous Crocodile. Photography by Manuel Harlan

Do you have a favourite puppet in The Enormous Crocodile?

Toby: Mine is definitely the Enormous Crocodile himself, the sheer scale and playfulness of how we portray the character onstage feels equal parts joyful and thrilling. And the initial idea of its design was really the bedrock for the entire show’s puppetry concept and how the performers would
portray the animals. 

Each of the main animal characters is a completely different style of puppet and has its own way of being operated by the performers. All the designs utilise the performers body in one way or another to ‘complete’ the shape of their animal, so we’ve ended up with a very playful aesthetic where the audience can enjoy seeing the performers rather than them being hidden or remaining neutral. 

How do you hope young audiences will react when they see The Enormous Crocodile puppets live on stage for the first time?  

Emily: I hope they are swept away in the magic of it all and enjoy believing that there might be a real crocodile onstage whilst also seeing a group of grown-ups having a great time running riot! We want them to be on the edge of their seats in the right way, leaning into the story. Suhayla (El-Bushra,
Book and Lyrics) has always said that children should feel just the right balance of fear and excitement. I think we're aiming for the sweet spot between those two emotions. 

The Enormous Crocodile, co-produced by Roald Dahl Story Company, Leeds Playhouse and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, is a joyous musical based on Roald Dahl’s wickedly funny and wildly popular original story that will bring instantly unforgettable music, world-class puppetry and enormous fun to audiences in Leeds from this winter and at Regent’s Park in summer 2024.   

Courtyard, Leeds Playhouse. Age guide 4+ . 50 minutes (no interval) .