THE WATER BABIES
Festival Theatre, Chichester
Opened 17 July, 2003
***

One of the cheekiest things about Chichester's latest main-house show is what it doesn't do. Having installed a huge water feature beneath the Festival Theatre's stage, used in various configurations so far this year in The Gondoliers and The Merchant Of Venice, the creative team keeps the H2O resolutely under cover throughout The Water Babies. Director Jeremy Sams and designer Robert Jones may have thought splashing around in shallows would be a rather silly substitute for the total immersion the story calls for.

Mind you, daftness is a keynote of both Sams' production and Jason Carr and Gary Yershon's musical stage adaptation. Perhaps this was considered a necessary corrective to the twee sententiousness of Charles Kingsley's original children's novel. The tone here is similar to the knowing but affectionate mickey-taking beloved of pop nostalgia TV programmes, allowing the audience at once to embrace the material and to snigger at themselves for doing so more or less I Love The 1870s. Consequently, Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid appears as a pointy-haired Victorian schoolmarm with her conduct ledger, whilst her fairy sister Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby (both played by Louise Gold) has the crisp vowels and formal gowns of Auntie Muriel from early BBC children's TV. The Water Babies themselves are decked out in baseball caps, baggies and micro-scooters, like a kind of S Club Severn.

Carr's songs similarly evoke a lost era: the 1960s American family musical. His tunes sometimes recall the sweeter, more balladic output of Disney/Chitty Chitty Bang Bang songwriters the Sherman brothers. His lyrics and Yershon's book, in contrast, update the vocabulary of Kingsley's tale of young Tom the chimney-sweep boy and his aqueous afterlife, so that it now includes references to the redemptive "mission" and to suffering from stress. Neil McDermott and Katherine O'Shea are suitably appealing juvenile leads, but Joe McGann is oddly lethargic in both acting and song as Tom's wicked master Grimes. The show is stolen, though, by the river life: a vampish Eel, a lugubrious Snail and a Caddis Larva who metamorphoses into a dragonfly that would make Erasure vocalist Andy Bell look frumpy. I doubt the show will make anyone seek out Kingsley's book for the first time, but it gives those already familiar a licence to revisit the fable without losing face.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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