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: We’ve been working on the show for almost five years. We definitely 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, honouring 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.
Toby, can you tell us about the first puppet you made?
Toby: I was six and in my dinosaur phase (now, aged 38, I am arguably still in this 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.
How does working with puppets affect the way you direct performers?
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.
Do you have a favourite puppet from The Enormous Crocodile?
Emily: I love them all, but there was a moment in one draft where we very nearly cut Humpy Rumpy as a character from the play, so I think I might say him! Oh, and the plate of carbonara – that’s a favourite!
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.
Can you remember a particular experience where you were entranced by a puppet as a child?
Emily: I used to love watching shows like Greenclaus and The Riddlers as a child on TV. And as an adult I won’t ever forget the first time I saw the War Horse horses, which Toby puppeteered. I love how puppets transport us to different worlds and make all kinds of impossible things possible.
Toby: For me seeing The Lion King stage musical as a teenager was a hugely formative experience. It was such an ambitious production that utilised many different types and scales of puppet. It was also incredible to see how awe-struck the audience was watching a show that uses very little stage trickery or technology; everything is very declared and human powered.
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 get 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.
Toby: I hope they connect with the puppets’ sense of fun and play so much that they’re straining in their seats to rush onstage and get involved… although constant audience participation could get somewhat distracting!
What advice would you give to children who’d like to try their hand at making their first puppet?
Toby: Just give it a go. Don’t be intimated by what you do or don’t know, or what materials you may or may not have at hand. There isn’t a huge puppet-making rule book; a puppet can be as simple as a piece of scrunched up paper or a folded tea towel. It’s about playing around with how the material or object can show signs of life and invite an audience into its story. Less is always more with puppets, so start small and see where your imagination leads you.
Behind the scenes in the workshop
Photographs by Ellie Kurttz