Oor Wullie has been everywhere this year. This summer, some 200 customised statues of the dungaree-clad scamp were scattered around the country for Oor Wullie’s Big Bucket Trail, a public art project designed to raise money for children’s charities. The icing on the cake should come next week when the spiky-haired comic strip icon is made flesh for a brand new musical that opens at Dundee Rep later this month for a festive run prior to a major cross-country tour.
For Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, aka Noisemaker, the internationally renowned musical theatre team writing the show, taking writer R.D. Low and artist Dudley D. Watkins creation – a staple on the pages of the Sunday Post since 1936 - from page to stage has become something of a labour of love. Having previously written Little Red and the Wolf and The Snow Queen for Dundee Rep, who also co-partnered Noisemaker in developing Hi, My Name is Ben, which premiered in New York, there was nevertheless initial trepidation at taking on such a well-loved character.
“We were a wee bit nervous,” Gilmour admits of the duo’s response after first being approached to take on the project. “At the time, Oor Wullie had just celebrated his 80th birthday, and with statues of him all over the country, he was probably more zeitgeisty than he’d ever been, so we wondered how we could take a title so well known, and how it might work.”
As McKenzie points out, “There are a lot of expectations around it. When a title means such a lot to people, you have to find a story you can tell that still keeps the essence of the original, but which also brings something new to it.”
To help with this, as Gilmour explains, “We did a lot of reading of a lot of annuals. We knew we were taking something that by its nature was short-form and turning it into long-form. The more we got into the annuals, the things that stood out after reading them back to back were themes of family, friendship and community, and that’s what we wanted to bring out in a way that keeps the authenticity of the characters, but which also makes it something for Scotland today.”
Comic strip spin-offs on stage and screen are nothing new, and date right back to Ally Sloper, the red-nosed stumblebum who was regarded as the first ever recurring character in comics. Sloper was created by writer Charles H Ross and illustrated by Emilie de Tessier in 1867 for Judy magazine before being given his own title, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, in 1884. Three Ally Sloper feature films were made, and his character was an influence on W.C. Fields and Charlie Chaplin’s onscreen personas.
In 1981, Reg Smyth’s tabloid layabout Andy Capp was adapted into a stage musical by Trevor Peacock, with songs by Peacock and Alan Price for a show that starred Tom Courtenay in the title role. A TV series featured James Bolam as Andy. More recently, while Marvel and DC comics universes have taken full advantage of new technology in their ongoing franchises of big-screen blockbusters, a big-budget Spiderman stage musical, featuring music and lyrics by Bono and The Edge from U2, hasn’t fared so well.
Probably closest in tone to Oor Wullie in terms of iconic status and feel-good factor is You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown. Clark Gesner’s musical first appeared in 1967, and was inspired by Charles M. Schultz’s globally recognised newspaper strip, Peanuts.
In terms of Oor Wullie’s contemporaries, Rob Drummond’s stage version of his near neighbours, The Broons, preceded him onstage in 2016. Like that play, Oor Wullie will be directed by Dundee Rep artistic director Andrew Panton, with the Sell a Door company co-producing in association with Noisemaker.
Rather than simply use old comic strip plotlines in a sketch-like show, Noisemaker’s thoroughly modern Oor Wullie will retain all of the comic strip’s characters for an original stand-alone story. Dundee publishers DC Thomson, who first introduced the character to the world, are also on board for the project. While lovingly protecting the brand, those currently overseeing Oor Wullie’s antics also appear keen for them to reach out to new audiences.
“The idea of reading a comic strip in a Sunday paper every week is changing,” says Gilmour, “and so is the idea of how a comic strip functions in people’s everyday lives, and I think part of the rise of things like stage adaptations is about how to keep an audience engaged, and to introduce new audiences to the characters.”
As McKenzie point out, “DC Thomson are totally passionate about keeping the integrity of the characters in the show. Most of the notes we get are about what someone would or wouldn’t say, and once we get that right, it allows us to use it as a jumping off point rather than a straight adaptation.”
“By the end of things, says Gilmour, “that will hopefully make for the start of a brand new adventure.”
Oor Wullie, Dundee Rep, November 23-January 5; Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 20-25, 2020; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, January 28-February 1, 2020; Gaiety Theatre, Ayr, February 3-8, 2020; Eden Court, Inverness, February 10-15, 2020; Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, February 26-29, 2020; His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, March 3-7, 2020; Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, March 9-11, 2020; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, March 12-14, 2020.
The Herald, November 9th 2019