The Ruby in the Smoke Team on Working with Philip Pullman

Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke sees the author’s Victorian mystery novel come to the stage for the first time. Broadway Baby Children’s Correspondent Tom Moyser met writer-director Madeleine Perham, producer Madeleine Golding and lead actor Rebecca Lenihan to discuss Pullman, skirt-hoiking and why it is so important to have the right hats.

I want you to stick to the original text and I want hats!

When its adaptor and director, Madeleine Perham, first emailed Philip Pullman about The Ruby in the Smoke, she did not expect a reply. She had been revisiting his Sally Lockhart series after graduating from Oxford University. “They were brilliant because they’re about when you’re almost ready to be an adult. You face so many challenges. You have to be independent and think on your feet. I thought, this feels more than a coming of age story. This is about being a 21 year old.”

“I’d done the laundry and the washing up so I thought, I’m going to email Philip Pullman and see what happens.” To Perham’s surprise, he emailed back the next day: “that sounds brilliant, go ahead.” “It’s not something you expect to see over your cereal,” Perham jokes.

Perham and Golding, who produces the show, met the author in a cafe in Oxford. To their surprise, Pullman did not need convincing. “I thought we’d have to sell ourselves,” admits Perham, “he just said no, I trust you.” Lenihan, who plays the book’s heroine Sally Lockhart, sums up Pullman’s guidance as “I want you to stick to the original text and I want hats!” The hats stick in Golding’s mind too: “I think we both scribbled HATS in big letters during the meeting because he sat there saying, don’t mess this up.”

She explains: “He’s very specific about the problem with the BBC adaptation is that there were details missing and there wasn’t a lot of attention given to the period. He is really into his research so that is kind of massive to him. So our first thought was, get the costumes right, get the hats.”

Otherwise, says Perham, he was very hands-off and granted the team a surprising amount of creative autonomy. Luckily, she shares his passion for historical authenticity. Her room at home is crammed with books on the period, “things like Dickens Dictionary of London, 1879; A Guide to the Hats of the 1870s.” The female half of the cast, adds Leniham, all wear petticoats under their costumes.

During this discussion, Perham mentions in passing that Lenihan is “the first person to play two Philip Pullman heroines” having played Lyra in His Dark Materials when the pair worked on a production together at Oxford. It is not something that Lenihan had realised before and she is delighted. “Wear that like a crown,” Perham advises.

Lenihan herself is half-way through qualifying as a medic. “I’m so new to all of this, I’m not acting trained or anything.” She was particularly taken aback when a young audience member asked her to autograph a ticket for her. “I felt like Micky Mouse!” she exclaims, “it was just so bizarre to have a girl so invested in the story that she wants a little bit of it to remember, which was amazing. I’ve never done a show so aimed at children. My favourite moment was, I watched the fight backstage and I could see three little boys in the front row, curled up in their chairs and not breathing until it was over. The kids have had the best reactions.”

Lenihan describes Sally as “something quite extraordinary” for her period. “She doesn’t really fit the world. She is quite happy to hoik her dress up to her knees if she thinks that’s the most practical way to get from A to B.” But she is also “a very reactive character” who “won’t move until she’s thought something through.”

For Perham as a writer, adapting Sally was the tricky bit: “she spends so much time thinking about how she wants to respond to a situation. The BBC [adaptation] doesn’t really translate that. So you can tell there are thoughts churning in Billie Piper’s mind but you think ‘what’s she actually thinking?’” On stage, as in the book, “she just goes ‘this is very odd. How am I going to approach this odd thing that has happened to me?’”

Can they sum up the show in one sentence? Perham gives it a go: “Victorian mystery adventure, woman fights with skirt hoiked.”

“No, wait,” she says, “I’ve got a better one!” She takes a breath, and says carefully, as if counting the words: “Philip Pullman likes it, it must be pretty good.”

Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke runs at Pleasance Dome this Fringe. Follow the company on Twitter @ReprintProds and find their full Edinburgh listing: