If what you want is a straightforward stage adaptation of a classic novel, then Jos Houben's take on Herman Melville's Moby-Dick for Spymonkey isn't for you. If on the other hand you're prepared to accept a brilliant piece of physical theatre wrapped around the original story, then you're in for two hours of magic.
It's a co--production with Northampton's Royal and Derngate arts complex, confronting its audience as we enter the theatre with an eclectic mix of songs with a connexion to the sea – and the soundtrack from Orson Welles's film. The stage is a jumple of sailcloth, ropes and crates which will reveal the deck of the Pequod in due course. All the parts are played by four actors with a bewildering variety of quick costume changes, a puppet to represent cabin-boy Pip, and a lot of special effects.
Somehow or other, the audience is cajoled into providing storm sound effects and appropriate movements; one hapless member is transformed into a seagull. The blend of circus skills, dance, mime, music and dialogue is something very familiar to European mainland audiences and all four performers have trained in these techniques. They're an impressive ambassador for them.
Our narrator is Aitor Basauri as Ishmael, the seadog who lives to tell a tale. His is a bravura performance, winkling its way into the audience's confidence just as he does into Captain Ahab's crew. Then there's Stephan Kreiss as Queequeg, who we first encounter as a sort of Baron Samedi, and who swirls across the deck and up the ropes with imagination-defying aplomb. Petra Massey is the puppeteer, wearing a marvellous costume painted to reflect the planks of the ship and an even more stunning one as a mermaid with a certain itch.
Yes, I know that there's no mermaid in the original and we're reminded of the old sailors' superstition concerning women on board. But who cares? It's just part of the mayhem, a controlled insanity which, of course, is just what Ahab's pursuit of the sperm whale which crippled him actually amounts to. The two stories simply run on parallel tracks. That's partly down to Toby Parks as Ahab and also due to the taut movement devised by Barry Grantham and Janine Fletcher and the design team of Lucy Bradridge, Graeme Gilmour and Phil Supple.