Writer: Michael Morpurgo
Director: Dani Parr
Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
Michael Morpurgo’s writing for children has become such an integral part of modern English literature that many adaptations of his truly heartfelt stories have now touched a second or third generation. Theatrical adaptations of his work, most notably War Horse, of course, has changed the theatrical landscape in the last decade. Wizard Theatre, in association with Watford Palace Theatre, present a one-woman, storytelling version of Morpurgo’s 1985 work Why The Whales Came at The Lowry this half term.
Friends Gracie and Daniel live on the remote island of Bryher, a remote island somewhere off the coast of Cornwall near the Scilly Isles. It is 1914, the outbreak of the Great War. The world is changing hugely – even in this remote part as Gracie’s father, an Admiral in the Navy, is called up. This is a story rooted in the traditional sea-faring fables. Ten-year-olds Gracie and friend Daniel have always been warned to stay clear of the cursed old man known as The Birdman, feared by the Islanders and shunned (with his dog Prince) onto the neighbouring isle of Samson. Intrigued by the mystery and somewhat lured by his strange messages left on the beach in shells, string, and seaweed the duo accidentally find themselves face to face with this beguiling character. Similarly to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a storm delivers them to his island and Zachariah Woodcock (aka The Birdman) not only turns out to be much less scary than expected he becomes the soothsayer for events past, present and future.
This is a production that calls upon old-fashioned storytelling. An art arguably bulldozed by modern theatrical populist children’s theatre it is often the most effective. As every parent will attest it is the story itself and the way it is told that will always win hands down over loud and colourful children’s ‘entertainment’. For sixty minutes we are in the hands of accomplished storyteller Dinyah Miller. She is a little like the best teacher you may have had at primary school. In her adaptation, she weaves herself in and around Kate Bunces’ ingenious set. Constructed in the vague shape of a boat it purveys carvings, troughs, sails, lighting and every prop Miller could need to convey her story. It really is a work of art that helps tell every detail of the story with a little bit of visual stimuli. As the storyteller, Miller occasionally uses little bits of sign language on an important verb, noun or adjective. Accessible and satisfying it may be but becomes so much more when halfway through the story it is revealed that one of the possible reasons why The Birdman is so scary to the inhabitants is because he is deaf.
For those, like me, who didn’t know this story of why the whales came to the island of Bryher, it is a surprisingly beautiful story of love defeating hate and a community’s redemption in the face of the Great War. It all sounds heavy but Dinyah Miller’s slick, deft and delicate touch means that this is a storytelling performance that speaks to everyone in the audience. Despite what may seem a rotten world there is still good to be had when it comes to rescuing one stranded narwhal on a remote beach, despite the hundreds of men dying at sea amid a war the world has never seen before.
This is a real treat for older children and those who are particularly fond of Morpurgo’s writing. It is a focussed hour of genuinely wonderful storytelling in the hands of a genuinely wonderful storyteller. The story occasionally lacks a little drive that means a few shuffles from the younger age range but it is worth the perseverance to see this class piece of storytelling.
Reviewed on 24 October 2017 | Images: Contributed