Stage Adaptation: David Wood
Based on the book by Dick King-Smith
Director: Michael Fentiman
Designer: Madeleine Girling
Puppet Director: Matthew Forbes
Composer: Barnaby Race
Reviewer: Rob Atkinson
Stage adaptations of popular books that have already been big screen hits can be a tricky business, particularly when, as in the case of Babe the Sheep-Pig, most of the principal characters are farmyard animals. The challenge of a live medium like theatre has been met head-on by David Wood’s clever and effective adaptation, with a small yet versatile cast using a combination of striking costumes and deft puppetry skills to bring to life various sheep, dogs, ducks, a cat, a scary predator and of course the lovable little pig, Babe himself.
The play opens with a group of actors in sheep’s clothing, very much in ovine character as they mill about in a variety of seemingly aimless pen and fence situations, baa-ing at the audience and generally setting the scene for an aspirational animal tale. The old recipe of comedy, pathos, an element of scary tragedy and a good old-fashioned moral at the centre of things serves this production well, as it has many others. Add a few solid numbers to get the crowd clapping, the brief appearance of a genuinely scary villain; then provide an ultimately happy ending – and you have a sure-fire winner, as confirmed by the enthusiastic applause as the players took their bows at the end.
The magic here is created largely by the excellence of the puppetry skills displayed throughout by the actors in well-fashioned, intricate and brilliantly choreographed displays of co-operation between humans and animal constructs. The effect of the puppets is very lifelike indeed, their movements and body language remarkably convincing. One of the most impressive aspects of the production is that the necessary proximity of the puppets and the actors controlling them does not detract from the action. The puppets do not appear as mere extensions of their human operators, but rather as characters in themselves. Thus, when Babe looks up imploringly at Farmer Hogget, that is just what we see – rather than the fact of an actor making a puppet perform an action. In some cases, as with an aggressive farm cat, the puppet is jointly created by two operators. The effect of this has to be seen to be fully appreciated; suffice to say that the spectacle of feline ferocity is totally authentic.
One of the undoubted high points of the play is the appearance of a wild dog/wolf character, preying upon an elderly and helpless ewe. The wolf is an actor inside a framework style of costume, giving a sort of steampunk predator impression with Terminator overtones. It’s satisfyingly scary and yet doesn’t overwhelm the younger element of the audience. Their reaction seemed to be a saucer-eyed relish as the first act reached a cliff-hanger climax; there were thankfully no terrified tears before ice cream time.
There is so much to commend in this production and relatively so little to criticise. One of the slight problems, given the wraparound nature of the Quarry Theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, was a tendency in parts towards obscured sightlines. Much of the action takes place near the back of a fairly deep, enclosed barn/farmhouse set, and the view from either wing of the audience suffers accordingly, with some patrons looking to move to the few available centrally located seats. It might also be argued that some of the singing lacked a little clarity due to the volume of the musical backing – but these really are minor drawbacks in a production that, for the most part, had its audience not only entranced but actively involved.
This participative element is led by Nicola Blackman as the sheepdog Fly, when she invites the audience to learn and then repeat a sheep’s “password”, which is more of an eight line verse – and it works, brilliantly. Ms. Blackman, along with Ben Ingles as Farmer Hogget and Emma Barclay as Mrs. Hogget, move the piece along with pace and verve, admirably backed up by the ever-present symbiosis of ensemble actors and puppets. At the end of the evening, we’ve been entertained, deliciously scared, made to laugh and brought near to tears. Reassuringly, we’ve also been cajoled into accepting that politeness should be a universal virtue, whether you’re a prince or a pig. That’s a very valuable message in a piece of theatre aimed at least partly at our younger citizens – but it’s also, perhaps, a useful reminder for the rest of us.
Touring Nationwide | Image: David Monteith Hodge