Based on the well-known (and well-loved) book by Dick King-Smith, the latest production at Wimbledon’s Polka Theatre is a stage adaptation of The Sheep-Pig, which will also be familiar to many from the film entitled Babe. This production is one for all the family, fusing puppetry with folk music & dancing.
The story follows Babe, a piglet whose mother has been taken to the abattoir and has been separated from his brothers & sisters. Farmer Hogget successfully guesses his weight at a country fair and takes him home with the intention of fattening him up for Christmas. However, Babe soon gets attached to Hogget’s sheepdog, Fly, who mothers him (especially when her puppies are taken away from her) – he wants to follow in his adopted mother’s footsteps and, through a series of scrapes, is permitted to begin sheepdog training. He gains the flock’s trust and gets better at rounding them up, giving Hogget confidence to enter him into the Grand Challenge Sheepdog Trials. But will Babe prevail..?
It begins with Babe on the cusp of participating in the sheepdog trials, flashing back to tell his story with Fly acting as occasional narrator. This is a good idea, as there are some slightly darker moments – by knowing that Babe makes it to the trials, slightly younger children can be reassured that he survives. In showing Babe’s courteous manner towards the sheep, in contrast with Fly treating them like they’re stupid, it shows the value of kindness & not having preconceptions about anyone.
Madeleine Girling’s set is practical, allowing for swift transitions between scenes & making excellent use of any space onstage. It has a great feel of the farm & countryside, with parts of the set easily opened or closed to create new locations for the story, both inside & out. Jack Knowles’ lighting design adds to this, creating moments of despair & triumph. The individual bulbs that surround the frame of the stage are a pretty addition that work beautifully within the whole aesthetic of the set.
An energetic cast of eight take on all the roles in the show, from sheep to dog to human, as well as singing, dancing & operating puppets (all the while most of them are actually dressed as sheep, underneath everything). Matthew Forbes’ designs vary in style, with the pièce de résistance being Babe himself – you do forget that there is a person operating him, as it is disguised very well by whichever character it is that’s in charge of Babe at the time.
There is a lot of music in the show (compositions by Barnaby Race), which are instantly catchy and really do work to enhance the narrative. There could be a temptation to put in songs to fill it out & keep the children’s attention, but everything works to keep the story flowing. The little bit of audience participation is saved until near the end, where Babe needs help remembering a “password” – in actual fact it’s four lines of verse, which the young ones seem to commit to memory remarkably quickly! It is repeated maybe once too often, but it is a nice touch to make the children watching feel included in the story.
My verdict? A truly family show with a wonderful message of friendship & respect, brought vividly to life through song & dance – that’ll do, pig.
Babe, the Sheep-Pig runs at the Polka Theatre until 5 February 2017, before touring the UK. Tickets are available online and from the box office.