Former stand-up comedian Vikki Stone talks life in Saffron Walden, the secrets to keeping toddlers entertained and why panto shouldn’t be looked down upon
If you ask most parents of toddlers what television shows their kids enjoy the most, HEY DUGGEE is bound to come high up on the list. I know from experience that not a day goes by without the word ‘Duggee’ leaving my 20-month-old’s lips multiple times.
So, when the popular CBeebies series was transformed into a stage show, it was somewhat guaranteed it would go down well with family audiences. What wasn’t perhaps so predictable, however, was that the production, which toured theatres in England last year following a run at London’s Festival Hall, would impress industry critics so much that it would be awarded an Olivier.
“Let’s be honest, this is the category that will probably be cut from the television highlights, but children’s theatre is really important,” said Saffron Walden’s Vikki Stone in her 2023 Olivier Awards night acceptance speech.
Vikki, 38, co-wrote, adapted and provided musical supervision for the theatre production, which sees Duggee and his friends come to life through extraordinary puppetry and storytelling. But, prior to being approached by renowned theatre producer Kenny Wax to work on the show, she had no idea who the loveable character, Duggee, was.
“I don’t have children and I’d never heard of the show. So, the very first thing I did was watch all of the episodes in the space of a week – and there are 240 of them,” Vikki tells me.
While many parents may recoil in horror at the prospect of watching back-to-back kids TV for seven days running, the genre of family co-viewing is a growing trend. Just last year a global study by Kids Industries identified a significant rise in parents co-viewing media with children, with 47% prioritising content that can be watched together.
“It’s the genre I’m really into – shows that entertain the whole family – and HEY DUGGEE fits that so well. There are so many jokes and references in there that are not directed at the one- to three-year-olds watching it, and that makes it all the more entertaining and delightful,” explains Vikki, adding that the show was particularly sophisticated musically, with nods to many different genres.
“There’s one song called ‘The Stick Song’, which is everybody’s favourite and has an old school rave vibe. It turns the auditorium into a bit of a toddler mosh pit and we do a light show that goes along with it that is probably one of the best pieces of theatrical lighting in a show for that age group. That was one of the things that I think made the show stand out at the Oliviers. It’s a kids’ show yet it had all the spectacle and technical stuff that you get in a normal West End show, which I think makes it really special.”
While Vikki is currently carving out a niche in family theatre (she also wrote three shows for the 2023/2024 panto season, but more on that later), she’s also been a stand-up comedian and started her career in classical music having played flute as a child and attended the National Children’s Orchestra, followed by the Royal Academy of Music.
“I call myself a lapsed comedian. I did stand up for just over 10 years and I really enjoyed it, but it’s quite a lonely life,” she admits. “Especially when you’re touring like I did, you’d be in a car on your own, travelling from venue to venue and you’re always on your own. There’s no camaraderie.”
As a composer, Vikki’s classical works have included ‘The Thing That Matters’, a massed choral piece commissioned by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain, and ‘The Concerto for Comedian and Orchestra’, which premiered at Glastonbury Festival in 2017.
In 2022, Vikki made history when she became the first on-screen female musical director of a primetime entertainment show in the UK when working as musical director, pianist and band leader of the Saturday night ITV show, ‘Romeo and Duet’.
But Vikki has become renowned for her work in – and passion for – pantomime. Her script for Aladdin at the Lyric Hammersmith 2021/2022 won a British Panto Award, and for the 2023/2024 season, she has written scripts for two London pantomimes: ‘Cinderella’ at the Lyric Hammersmith and ‘Dick Whittington’ at the New Wolsey Ipswich, as well as creating the music and lyrics for a new version of the play, ‘Peter Pan’, at Rose Theatre Kingston.
“Pantomime is such an important part of British culture, they’re on in every village, every town, every city,” says Vikki, who is regularly referred to as the ‘Panto Queen’. “But I get a bit frustrated because it’s an art form that the industry, the theatre industry particularly, are quite snobby about. But the reality is pantomimes are the biggest earners for most theatres and are crucial for the financial health of the industry as a whole. So, there’s a lot of pressure as a writer – the panto has to do well to essentially fund the theatre being open for the rest of the year.”
Having moved to Essex from London three years ago, Vikki has been enjoying watching productions at the county’s theatres, such as The Mercury in Colchester, and has quickly settled into local life in Saffron Walden with her husband – who also works in panto – and Cocker Spaniel, Bert.
“I love the community aspect of Saffron Waldon, there are lots of independent shops and there’s a real sense of community,” she says. “While it’s sleepier than London, it’s constantly changing and there’s some really cool stuff popping up. It would be great to do some work here in Essex. I have been chatting to The Mercury, so you’ll have to watch this space.”
Saffron Waldon according to Mrs Stone
- There is a cool restaurant, called Chater’s, which has got that warehouse vibe, which you wouldn’t expect in Saffron Walden. It got a really good Guardian review by Grace Dent, so now you can’t get in because everyone is travelling from London to go there.
- I’m not much of a craft beer fan but my husband is, so we end up spending a fair bit of time in a little craft beer shop called Dead Time. We take our Cocker Spaniel, Bert, and tend to sit there on a Sunday afternoon.
- One of the things I love about where I live is there is a huge number of walks literally just out the door, so we don’t have to drive anywhere. When we bought the house, the previous owners left a book all about walks in and around our village so at weekends we’ll do one of those and usually end up in a pub.