A few months ago there was an outbreak of sniffiness that the West End was hosting shows such as Life Is Rhythm and Cyberjam which, whilst perfectly adequate by their own lights, allegedly weren't quite up to the mark for such an exalted berth. I thought at the time that this was just another media attempt to manufacture a "theatre in crisis" story out of what's just an inevitable cyclical phase. But blow me, here comes another one.
There's nothing actually wrong with Why The Whales Came. It's a dramatically efficient adaptation (for a cast of six) of Michael Morpurgo's children's book; it looks and sounds fine; there's little to take exception to in Nikki Sved and adapter Greg Banks' direction, or in the performances. It's being pitched as a show for families rather than specifically for children, and it occupies that crossover ground well, without patronising either adults or kids. Although not in any way Christmas-related, it fills a gap in the market for festive-season theatre. And yet it feels simply too modest to be in the Comedy Theatre.
Set on the island of Bryher in the Scillies during the First World War, the story deals with young Gracie and Daniel's befriending of eccentric elderly outcast the Birdman, and various consequences. It covers a number of themes common to intelligent fiction for young people: coming to terms with adult issues, the difference between small community and wider world perspectives, a touch of supernatural wonder and the improving moral message of learning to overcome ignorant prejudice (the Birdman is merely different, neither mad nor a German spy), with a climax which knits all the island folk together. All is done in a simple, direct way, with Holly Hutchings as Gracie foremost in a likeable enough cast.
And yet, and yet, and yet. Theatre Alibi's production (first seen a couple of years ago at Plymouth) feels the very opposite of urgent. Not sluggish in terms of playing – it's all over within a couple of hours including interval – but... well, when you ask the show what it's actually here for (as it were), it shrugs, smiles sheepishly and offers not a word in its own cause. As I say, it's not in any way bad; it's just that I defy anyone to feel at all intensely about it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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