According to children’s author Jackie French, there really was a Pete the Sheep – a sheep that thought it was a sheepdog.
“Pete was a black sheep called Dunmore, who herded all our other sheep into the shearing shed in return for a milk arrowroot biscuit and a scratch behind his horns,” she writes on her website.
“Back in the drought in the late 1970’s, when there was no grass for sheep to eat and no money to buy hay for them, a friend and I came up with a cunning plan. We’d give a sheep to every preschool in Australia! And then we’d make a living going around each preschool giving the sheep really cool haircuts… Luckily it rained before we put our plan into action.”
That innocently whacky idea later became one of French’s best-loved picture books for kids, Pete the Sheep, now adapted into a musical for kids by the Darling Harbour-based theatre company Monkey Baa.
It fell to director Jonathan Biggins (Wharf Revue) to bring the denizens of outback Shaggy Gully – the human and animal – to life and to “flesh out” the story. The original book is only 16 pages long.
“In a picture book like Pete the Sheep, the drawing says everything about the character but we have to do it with dialogue and song,” Biggins explains.
Expanded to fill a child-friendly 50 minutes, the action takes place in the Shaggy Gully shearing shed where old timers Ratso, Bungo and Big Bob are giving new recruit Shaun a hard time.
“Shaun likes to give the sheep a nice shear,” Biggins says. “He gets more and more creative and starts to style them up a bit. But that’s not the way it’s done around here so they boot Shaun off the premises.”
Undeterred, Shaun opens up his own salon. “All the sheep flock to it and the dogs, too, so they can have a nice haircut and be different.”
The message? “It’s OK to be different,” Biggins laughs. “Follow your dreams. Do what you want to do. Be creative. Stand out from the rest of the flock.”
The original book was pitched at four-to-six year olds. Biggins has raised the level of complexity somewhat. “If you pitch it at a nine-year-old, it’s a more interesting show and the four-year-olds always seem to catch up,” he says.
“In the end, it’s a family show and you have to have jokes on various levels. Phil Scott has written all the music and lyrics and some of it is very sophisticated. In my experience, if the adults are enjoying the show the children rise to it.”
Scott, also a member of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Revue team, has created a mash-up score of various styles.
“I’ve grounded it in country and western to mirror the world of the subjects but as a composer you also have to help the actors differentiate their characters, because they play shearers, dogs and sheep. So I’ve got the shearers into country and the dogs are into the blues. The sheep are actually the most sophisticated. They like a bit of cool jazz.”
Then there’s the choreography. “Line dancing and a bit of Fosse for the sheep,” says Scott. No “jazz hands” though. “Sheep have cloven hoofs, jazz hands would be hard for them.”
Pete the Sheep also plays Glen St Theatre, Belrose, April 21-24 and Casula Powerhouse, April 30-May 1