Northern Broadsides’ current policy of diversification has to be a good thing, especially as the company has no intention of abandoning its core constituency of Shakespeare where it continues to excel. Its first venture into children’s theatre, Andrew Pollard’s adaptation of Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, is promising rather than fully achieved.
In Pollard’s version, Norse gods serve as narrators - Loki, a whimsical chairman who calls on Fricka and Baldur to help him tell a tale for the children. Fricka favours the sweetly optimistic, Baldur the violently oppressive, and at each stage of the story disputes surface about the narrative’s direction as the three of them, plus Freya and Hod, act out the story of Tom who escapes from his cruel master, the chimney-sweep Grimes, to discover moral truths when re-born as a water baby.
The moral perspective is preserved, though high Anglicanism is replaced by a more generalised social conscience, but what remains of Kingsley’s narrative is, I suspect, not always clear to the young audience. The significance of the presenters may well be lost on them and incidents represented by mime or puppets are frequently charming and inventive, but imprecise as to actual events.
All five performers live up to the advance publicity’s epithet “multi-talented”, none more so than Kieran Buckeridge. As well as playing Loki as a mischievous magician, he switches accent, posture, gender and species in a variety of characters, plays flute and accordion and contributes an instrumental musical score of unfailing appeal – though I was less convinced by the songs.
Jill Myers, Andy Cresswell and Elisa de Grey display similar versatility, plus considerable talent on at least one musical instrument, with Myers’ staringly mechanical Mrs. Bedonebyasyoudid a particular joy. Director Adam Sunderland, as Hod, gradually takes on himself the character of Tom, the water-baby (represented by a do-it-yourself puppet), with great energy and physical resourcefulness, while at times somewhat overdoing the character’s appealing pop-eyed gaucheness.
Sunderland’s intelligent and imaginative production on an all-but-bare acting area (for once, no set designer is credited) shows how well Broadsides’ in-house stock of directorial talent is developing. However, The Water Babies remains a near-miss, not always certain of the age-group it’s aiming at, though with enough charm and variety to hold the attention of a very young (and, sadly, rather sparse) audience. It’s certainly an interesting choice for the pre-Christmas treat at Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, running from the end of November.