Since Birmingham Stage Company staged Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom three years ago, an adaptation of his War Horse has given the National Theatre one of its biggest hits of recent times.
Now BSC takes on another book by the prolific children’s author for its latest Christmas production. Adapted and directed by Greg Banks, Why the Whales Came has all the company’s familiar virtues of intelligent and economical storytelling, good production values and a non-patronising attitude to its young audience.
The story itself struck me as having a slightly written-by-numbers feeling, with its familiar ingredients of a mysterious island and a Skellig-like outcast-turned-redeemer, the Birdman. But it predates David Almond’s children’s classic, which BSC staged here only last month, by more than 20 years, and I was surprised on reading Michael Morpurgo’s programme note to realise how much is based on real places and true stories, or at least true legends.
The setting is the Scilly Isles around the outbreak of the First World War, where friends Daniel and Gracie pass their time sailing their model boats and dodging Daniel’s bullying elder brother, Big Tim. Though under strict instructions to shun the Birdman, they end up befriending the harmless loner, who is obsessed by the curse which befell the now-deserted island on which he grew up.
Things take a critical turn as war is declared and the Birdman falls victim to spy fever. But it is the arrival of a beached narwhal that brings things to a crisis.
Smartly designed by Jacqueline Trousdale, with closely integrated music by Thomas Johnson (played at this matinee by Alison George on cello, saxophone and flute), the show features natural and engaging performances. But a black mark to BSC for misspelling the name of its former patron, the late Paul Scofield, in the programme.
Until January 24.