Preview: The BFG

Robert Pickavance tells Antonia Charlesworth the bigger the better as he stars in a new Roald Dahl adaptation at the Dukes, Lancaster

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At five foot 11 inches, Robert Pickavance is an unlikely giant, but with an innovative approach to creating scale on stage, this year he steps into the enormous footsteps of one of the nation’s best-loved children’s characters – The BFG aka The Big Friendly Giant.

Roald Dahl’s The BFG reaches a milestone in 2012, marking the thirtieth anniversary of its publication. Consequently, the Dukes Theatre Lancaster wants to honour it with a faithful stage adaptation for Christmas.

Pickavance, from Leeds, is a stage actor with 35 years experience and over 150 performances under his belt, the majority of which have been new or experimental. Doing a children’s Christmas show, he says, is a refreshing change.

“I do love doing children’s shows because you get a very immediate and honest response from them. I just find that exciting and delightful, having that immediate contact with kids.”

But this role, he continues, threw up a set of challenges he has never faced before.
“Most of my company on stage is a small puppet and it’s quite a strange feeling – all your focus being given to an inanimate object.”

In the first half of the show the BFG’s giant proportions, created by Pickavance, act alongside a puppet of Sophie, the little girl he’s “kidsnatched” from an orphanage in England. The puppet is controlled by Preston actor Rachel Drazek but, as the story unfolds, the audience’s attention moves away from her and towards the puppet.

“If you’re working with an actor you can be much more free and spontaneous because you respond to each other,” says Pickavance.

“You can’t do that with a puppet – you have to be much more careful and considered about how you’re going to move with it.”

The second half of the show sees Sophie and the BFG reveal the evil doings of the other giants to the world and utilises a giant puppet on the stage. It’s so big that Pickavance has to operate the hands and mouth while someone else operates the arms.

“I was quite nervous about it,” says Pickavance. “It’s a huge construction and it wasn’t ready to be used until quite late on in rehearsals so I didn’t have a great deal of time to exactly work out what I could do.”

Theatrically, creating this sense of scale on stage, Pickavance says, is one of his favourite things about the play. But with the logistics tackled, the real magic of The BFG is brought to life through Roald Dahl’s unique language.

Speaking in muddled “Wigglish”, the BFG’s “langwitch” is what makes the story truly scrumdiddlyumptious to “human beans”. Indeed, one of the most joyful moments of the show is when the BFG explains to Sophie the fun of “whizzpopping” after a fizzy drink.

“That is one of the most liberating moments of the whole show,” says Pickavance. “I love it and I like some of the lines where the whizzpopping is set up and the audience is realising what they’re talking about and what might be about to happen. Whizzpop is a great word.”

On a technical level the puppetry and the language have been real highlights for Pickavance, who first discovered The BFG with his daughter, now 28, in the 1980s. But on an emotional level it is the unlikely friendship between a little orphan girl and a giant that makes the role special for the actor.

“Sophie and the BFG are both rather strange, lonely and almost dysfunctional characters who don’t have a great life, but by accident they meet and are able to do extraordinary things together. They are kindred spirits, they’ve both been bullied, they’re both loners and they both want friendship and they find each other. I find that really very touching.”

The BFG, until 7 Jan, The Dukes Theatre, Lancaster.

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