Friday, 20 February 2009

Why the Whales Came - Richmond Theatre

Why the Whales Came By Michael Morpurgo
Adaptor & Director: Greg Banks
Reviewer: Ann Bawtree

Keeping the title “WHY the Whales Came” for this stage adaptation by Greg Banks of Michael Morpurgo’s book is so much better than “WHERE the Whales Came” used for the now nearly twenty year old film version. “Where” is simply an introduction to “this happened” whereas “Why” implies a more complex fulfilment.

The Birmingham Stage Company’s representation of this well loved book is of necessity a slightly simplified version of the story but the essential elements were all present, as confirmed by our co-critics Mollie, Tom and George. These three were representative of the two thirds of the audience at Richmond Theatre who ranged between about eight years old and thirteen.

The set, designed by Jacqueline Trousdale and provided by Capital Scenery, is of Gracie and Daniel’s beach as seen from the sea enclosed in a dark semicircle providing the claustrophobic atmosphere of life on a small island. At centre back a large red sail fulfils several functions from the Birdman’s hiding place to a changing room for the two actors who have double roles. Subtle lighting by Jason Taylor denotes the passing of time, season and all importantly, the weather.

Fishing equipment lies about and rather surprisingly, behind one pile sits a young lady, on this particular evening Alison George, playing music by Thomas Johnson on the cello. This could have been intrusive but despite its almost continuous presence her sensitive playing, intermittently also on the saxophone and flute, adds to the mystery.

More music is added by the haunting keen of Alison Fitzjohn who plays both the strong matriarch and the ridiculously pompous school marm who particularly appealed to the younger members of the audience.

Thomas Woodman also has two parts, playing the father of the family and Daniel’s older brother, Big Tim (and he is big) with astonishing agility.

Jay Quinn and Eliza Caitlin Parkes make believable children as Daniel and Gracie. The latter is an especially difficult part as it alternates between the child’s dialogue and narration, almost as though Gracie is telling the story in her old age.

The Birdman, or Mr Woodcock, to give him his rightful name, complete with the beautiful carved birds of John Brooking and played by Chris Llewellyn is unsettling. It is no wonder that the ordinary folk of Bryher are suspicious of him until the open mindedness of the children proves them mistaken.

Perhaps Andrew Thompson as the Preventative Officer could have been made to be a little more fearsome. After all the keeping of salvage is a very serious offence. The family seemed to think of him as something of a joke, and it would have been no surprise to hear him greet them with “Good Moaning!”… and why is he Welsh? The accents generally were not of any particular region, certainly not Cornwall, but rightly so for a play of such universal appeal.

In a similar way the costumes of Elizabeth Jones and Della Rebours, too, were almost undated. It was a while before it became clear that the period was the First World War and not the Second, a strong point rather than the opposite.

This play holds the attention throughout and is over in less than two hours, a strength when writing principally for children. It has some particularly high points such as the rowing boat scene and the skilful mime which overcomes the problem of the whale. Finally a little twist right at the end of the play removes any possible sentimentality from this highly successful production.

Playing at Richmond until Sat 21st Feb
More tour dates can be found by clicking here
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