It doesn’t matter whether you have kids or not – if you haven’t seen an episode of the animated ABC kids’ show Bluey, trust me when I say you’re missing out.
The Brisbane-produced series – which centres around the eponymous blue heeler pup, her sister Bingo and their parents Chilli and Bandit – has, in the space of just two years, grown into a worldwide phenomenon. It’s won an Emmy and a Logie, and in the last quarter of 2019, Bluey fever hit the US, with 16 million people tuning in. Later this month it will launch globally on the streaming platform Disney+, and there are plans for an entry into European and Asian territories.
The show – which has featured guest stars such as Myf Warhurst, Megan Washington, comedian Claudia O’Doherty, Zoë Foster Blake and Hamish Blake – recently passed the milestone of 100 episodes. It’s now stepping off the screen and onto the stage, brought to life by Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre Co.
Director Rosemary Myers is very conscious of how important the characters are to their audience. With the second series released in 2020, “It was such a big thing during lockdown for a lot of families,” she tells Broadsheet. So she knew that the idea of taking a beloved series from the screen and translating it for a live audience would come with very specific challenges and responsibilities – how do you remain true to the original while making it work in a new format?
Working closely with Ludo Studios, the creative team behind the show, it was decided early on that for Bluey’s Big Play puppets (rather than actors in costume) would be the way to go. The story – a new script written by Bluey creator Joe Brumm – follows two threads: one where the kids hide Bandit’s phone because they want him to play with them, and another that focuses on Chilli’s relationship with her sister. Much like the TV series, the fun and joy is underscored by emotional depth. “It’s made me cry in rehearsals,” says Myers with a small laugh.
After a year of delays and rescheduling and a series of unfortunate events – including their lead Bluey puppeteer being quarantined – the team has hit the ground running. Bluey’s Big Play is now touring Australia, performing up to four shows a day. Performances are scheduled for Adelaide, Canberra and Queensland in January and February, and New South Wales, the Northern Territory and Western Australia after that.
For each performance there are eight puppeteers on stage, and the puppets are big – really big – which can sometimes make things a bit of a physical challenge for those operating them. “It's a really quick-paced, fast, 45-minute show and we go through five different scene changes,” says the show’s puppetry director Jacob Williams. “They are turning into elite athletes, our puppeteers,” he adds with a laugh.
“It's such a beautiful show,” he says of the original series. “There was a lot of responsibility on the creators … to really honour that beautiful product onto the stage … we didn’t want kids to say, ‘Oh, that’s not like the TV show’.”
To that end, it helps that many of the key elements of the TV series are also present in the play. The normal six-minute format has been stretched to 45, and the 2D animated characters are made real via life-sized puppets created by Melbourne’s Joe Blanck (who has previously worked with the Melbourne Theatre Company, Victorian Opera, Australian hip-hop group Thundamentals, and has also been featured at White Night.) The soundtrack is by Bluey composer Joff Bush, and the voices are pre-recorded by the same cast that voices the characters on television (which includes Custard frontman, David McCormack).
“We did look at one point at voicing it with the live actors,” says Myers. “But the voices are such a part of the show.” She also points out that Bingo and Bluey are voiced by children around the same age as the characters. “You can’t emulate that by having adults doing kids’ voices.”
The stage show is familiar where it counts, while offering something new and exciting – for kids to feel like they’re actually in the room with the characters they know so well.