Writer: Dick King-Smith
Adaptor: David Wood
Director: Michael Fentiman
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
After performing for an extended period over Christmas and New Year at their home in Wimbledon, Polka Theatre’s heart-warming tale of bravery embarks on a UK tour beginning at The Lowry. Beautiful design and puppetry are at the heart of this superb production about a little pig who dares to dream big.
Dick King-Smith’s classic story of defying rank and station keeps its audience as penned in as Babe’s sheep. An instant children’s favourite when written in 1983 the story is probably most well-known as a film. Babe, released in 1995, was a huge success. Children’s stage adapter David Wood has since adapted the story for stage and the result is a splendid fusion of human and animal as performers narrate and puppeteer. Fresh on Farmer Hoggett’s farm, Babe is adopted by Fly the sheep dog. When her puppies fly the nest can Babe really make it in a dog’s world? Surely there must be a better method to rounding up sheep than by intimidating them. And will Mrs Hoggett see past seeing Babe as pork chops, bacon and crackling to fill her dinner table when the time is right?
It is not very often that the overall concept and design of a production can be praised without it seeming to be at the expense of the talent onstage but this is an exception. The creatives behind this production have chosen a bold aesthetic that could well have backfired. However, Madeleine Girling’s overall design concept is a treat to view onstage. The puppets are exquisite and manipulated by the ‘flock’ of performers dressed every bit as sheep. (There is something very pleasing about sheep dog puppies being controlled by the sheep themselves). Of course Babe the pig is every bit as wide-eyed and curly-tailed as you want him to be. Maa, the sheep matriarch, is wheeled about in a wheelbarrow and the wolf-like sheep-worrying dog, which savages Maa, is stunning. As the ‘human’ characters Mr and Mrs Hoggett wear mask-like prosthetics. A strange choice perhaps but it compliments as a sort of reverse anthropomorphism – the lines on Hoggett’s masked face contrasting nicely with the lines of the corrugated iron set side-lit by Jack Knowles lighting design. The courageously unapologetic stylised theatrical grounding of this piece is its success.
The collaborative work is strong, the script efficient and the production swift. The ensemble of performers under Michael Fentiman’s direction do a fantastic job of making us engage with the puppets and immediately see beyond their woolly-clad masters. While Barnaby Rice’s Irish folk composition provides a little humour (through occasionally formation dancing herded sheep) and pathos (at the death of Maa) there is a bad production choice in allowing live and recorded music to interact. At times the cast sing along to a pre-recorded track and While the intention may be to inject a ‘fuller’ sound into the production the reverse is the unfortunate effect. More live music or, indeed, an acapella version of the music may well have been a better choice rather than performers singing quietly to an already low backing vocal.
It is easy to see why King-Smith’s universal tale of acceptance, difference, perseverance and understanding is a popular choice to bring to the stage. Polka theatre’s production is wonderful to look at and gentle to watch. But perhaps lacks a little punch to make it outstanding.
Runs until 15 April 2017 | Image: Contributed