NOTE: The following review dates from an earlier tour of this production. Some credits may have changed. Please check the show's listing information for current details.
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
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 -
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
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.