E B White's wonderful children's book about a valiant spider's attempts to save a pig from ending up on a dinner plate provides many of us with such fond memories that surely a stage adaptation should be able to deliver on the notion of nostalgia alone?
White once said: "Are my stories true, you ask. No, they're imaginary tales, containing fascinating characters and events." Of the book, this is certainly true, but somewhere along the line, Watershed’s adaptation fails to deliver enough magic to keep a young audience glued to their seats.
Wilbur, the pig (played by Timothy Platt), and his best friend Charlotte, the spider (Norette Leahy), live in a barn on Zuckerman's farm. While both can talk, Charlotte is special because she can write. Wilbur is blissfully happy with his lot, until he realises he may end up as a ham sandwich once his novelty value has faded. Can Charlotte's amazing literary talent save Wilbur's bacon? You probably know the answer, but it should be fun finding out all the same, so why isn't it?
This simple moral tale of friendship, equality and loyalty is universal and timeless. In this stage version, Watershed has made few drastic alterations, which is actually part of the problem. Chris Wallis' direction is very static. Often characters just stand on the stage talking. Fine, but such a wordy piece needs to have something visual for the young audience to remain engaged – otherwise, they may as well just read the book.
The children on the afternoon I attended came to life during the slapstick scenes and, thanks to actor Grant Simpson’s heavy sarcasm, whenever Templeton the Rat appeared.
Curiously, while the humans sound American, Platt's Wilbur sports a Bolton accent. A minor point perhaps, but the whining does start to grate, which makes it hard to root for the pig like we should. As for the spider, Leahy’s Charlotte lacks emotional punch; she merely says her lines and disappears. Considering the audience is meant to be deeply moved by her character's selfless acts, this poses a big problem.
Some more slapstick humour, microphones for the actors, and a more mechanical set would have given the children more to talk about after the show rather than during it. As it is, this Charlotte’s Web does not weave the imaginative magic its author originally intended.
- Glenn Meads