Why the Whales Came
Sheffield Star: Wednesday 4 March 2009
Why the Whales Came
The Stage Newspaper - review by
Once again the estimable Birmingham Stage Company under its guiding spirit, Neal Foster, has come up with a seasonal tale for thoughtful children, which combines magic, mystery, excitement and a strong moral message, all of it set in the Isles of Scilly on the eve of the First World War.
A loner lives on a deserted island and slowly becomes the local scapegoat for the community’s misfortunes. Known as the Birdman, he is crippled, eccentric and shy, yet intensely concerned with the wellbeing of the island and its inhabitants.
Chris Llewellyn in the part is intensely moving, speaking with a broken voice and shuffling across the stage with the woebegone air of those who are misunderstood. There is not much to convince us he is as old as we are led to believe, but his general acting is hypnotic. The Birdman’s life is threatened by the bullying teenager, Big Tim, who accuses him of spying for the Germans.
At this point the moral message is made quite clear - those who do not fit within the general mould must be accommodated and treated with consideration and compassion like everyone else, or society is no more than a rotten vessel, caulked over to give an appearance of soundness.
Too deep for children?
Not at all, those near me were totally focussed and Smarties took a back seat.
An excellent setting by Jacqueline Trousdale of a rust-red sail and an overturned boat, set off by a few lobster pots, does very well in the atmosphere stakes, and when the narwhals arrive in the second half, to support a beached chum, we feel their mystical presence although, of course, it is all done by miming.
The onstage - and very skilled - cellist, who plays throughout the performance, is diligent and fluent.
AMBITIOUS PLAN PAYS OFF
Birmingham Mail - review by Diane Parkes
The Birmingham Stage Company opens the city's Christmas shows and adapting Michael Morpurgo's Why The Whales Came is ambitious but it pays off.
Youngsters Daniel and Gracie, played with suitable enthusiasm by Jay Quinn and Eliza Caitlin Parkes, befriend the mysterious Birdman and learn the long-harboured secrets of the whales' curse. The approach of World War One gives the story a deeper level of pathos, especially when Gracie's dad departs.
The stage set is uncomplicated and many props have to be imagined. All of the excellent cast keep the action moving; the most fidgety of youngster will be hooked!
Whale of a time
Clan Langley is embarking on its intensive Christmas show schedule - and we couldn't have got off to a better start than the Birmingham Stage Company's latest. As we've all come to expect from performances at the Old Rep, it's terrific.
The story behind Why the Whales Came was told to author Michael Morpurgo during a holiday in the Scilly Isles 25 years ago. Its foreground Blytonesque yarn involving the adventures of two young chums is tricked out with all sorts of thought-provoking attractions - ghosts, superstitions, schoolyard bullying, a mysterious island and more - against the real and handily metaphorical background of the First World War.
While grown-ups can nod appreciatively at the Pullmanesque parallels with the great battle for the soul of man which are never far below the surface, the kids can enjoy the suspense, the spooky bits and the sheer fun. I can envisage kids all over the Midlands devising ways of making an off-centre see-saw in their gardens which they can use as a 'boat' the way Daniel and Gracie do when they go fishing.
It's one of the many little bits of stage magic which turn this one-set show into something special, something resembling the sort of dressing-up games that youngsters play every day: a wooden crate becomes a school bench, a stick a machine gun, whale song and bird cries come from the performers.
It's very moving and great fun by turns - hiding washed-up timber from the Customs man smacks of Whiskey Galore (executed with great comic timing by the wonderful ensemble cast) and the finale has more than a hint of The Railway Children climax about it. And there's a nod to a Narnian unicorn along the way.
Director and adaptor Greg Banks has done a terrific job of boiling down the essentials of the narrative for a cast of six (the teacher changes sex, as in some High School Musical adaptations) and musical director Thomas Johnson has come up with some haunting motifs which at certain points almost become part of the dialogue. An on-stage cellist performs the score (the excellent Alison George when we saw the show, also using sax and flute).
Alison Fitzjohn and BSC regular Thomas Woodman display splendid versatility and sing wonderfully and Andrew Thompson is straight out of an Ealing Comedy as the Customs snooper.
Chris Llewellyn as the spooky Birdman would probably do better than Pete Postlethwaite as Lear at Liverpool's Everyman, by all accounts. His acting skill, emotional range and effectiveness is not in doubt, but I think his beard and hair would be more convincing with a liberal sprinkling of grey. No one with facial hair this vibrant is going to be that weak, foot dragging a la Keyser Söze or not.
Jay Quinn and Eliza Caitlin Parkes (pictured) are a joy as the children at the heart of the adventure, combining the feel of children playing out a game with narrative asides in the voice of an all-knowing author to explain the action - a very effective dramatic technique.
Why the Whales Came runs until January 24 in Birmingham before embarking on an extensive tour. It's a text that many Year 5 pupils will encounter, but it's accessible and enjoyable for age 7 upwards. This bus pass holder loved it.