Why the Whales Came is a haunting children's story, written by Devon-based Michael Morpurgo and adapted and co-directed with Nikki Sved for Theatre Alibi by Greg Banks. Set during the First World War in the isolated Scilly Isles, the play's farming tales and fisherman's fables are far removed from the lives of today's city kids.
The play follows schoolfriends, Gracie (Holly Hutchings) and Daniel (Henry Hawkes) who, with the help of the reclusive and mysterious Birdman (James Walker), unravel the secrets of the abandoned island of Samson. The island's curse is dreaded throughout their closeknit community, with the Birdman at the centre of the islanders' fears. After a beautifully depicted episode where Gracie and Daniel all but perish at sea in a rowing boat lost in the fog, and through the children's innocent curiosity and natural abhorrence of injustice, the island's dark memories are gradually explained.
Dominie Hooper's charming design sets us firmly on a pebbly, rocky coastline in a time when children were free to play unguarded with simple homemade toys. Hutchings and Hawkes captivate as the adventurous duo, leaping around the sand dunes and wrecked hulls of the shoreline. Daniel's bullying brother, Big Tim is a belligerent ignoramus, played by the versatile Derek Frood who delivers a sharp contrast with his compassionate portrayal of Gracie's father.
Amanda Lawrence also impressively alternates two characters - Gracie's mild-mannered mother and the schoolteacher, Mr Wellbeloved. James Walker is well-suited to the eccentric figure of the deaf Birdman. Those of us who live near the British coastline and daily suffer the raucous squawking of predatory seabirds will appreciate the clever touch of authenticity afforded us throughout the play by cast members Lawrence and Frood.
Why the Whales Came is augmented by the live cello accompaniment of Harry Napier. The inclusion of Thomas Johnson's original music enhances the production immeasurably, echoing as it does the moods of the sea and the elements. Sadly, whalesong was used only sparingly. It needn't have dominated the soundtrack, but I did yearn for it to feature more prominently towards the play's climax.
If 21st-century computer-literate, designer-clad children might find it difficult to relate to the lifestyle depicted in Why the Whales Came, the issues raised and the family values questioned are as relevant today as they were in far-flung rural Britain almost 90 years ago.
- Annie Dawes (reviewed at Plymouth's Theatre Royal)