It is the early part of the 20th century, and an abandoned baby is found in the rural West Country by a shepherd and his wife. Despite being severely mentally impaired, John-Joseph “Spider” Sparrow matures to display a mesmerising affinity for animals, becoming beloved by those around him.
From this, Nikki Sved has created a beautifully eloquent piece of theatre that will appeal to audiences of all ages. With its overt puppetry and rural themes, parallels will of course be drawn with the National Theatre’s stellar War Horse – but that’s no bad thing. For smaller venues that cannot receive the space-hungry War Horse, The Crowstarver is a commendable substitute that engages and draws its audience in.
Performances are flawless; this is a drum-tight troupe but special mention must be made of Malcolm Hamilton, who gives a sensitive and poignant portrayal of Spider from toddler to teenager. Playing a character with learning difficulties is a challenge for any able-bodied actor but Hamilton is unquestionably plausible.
If there is one minor criticism, it is of part of the set – a central raised and raked multi-use platform. While its horizontal surface, upon which the actors perform, is faultless, under the lights the vertical walls facing the audience seem to be hastily painted plywood. Some rustic cladding wouldn’t go amiss. This small deficiency mars an otherwise exquisite set.
At times rumbustious and boisterous, at others genteel and introspective, Spider’s story of life between the World Wars is transcended by Thomas Johnson’s evocative score played on piano by Charlotte Hobbs and on violin by Johnson himself. However, without any reflection of the adaptation or Johnson’s musical direction, one cannot help but feel that it is begging for an ensemble song or two.
Nonetheless, The Crowstarver is an utterly charming example of top-notch, mass-appeal theatre.