On offer for families at Ovalhouse this festive season was a stage adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s Why The Whales Came. It has been touring the UK and will continue to visit more venues in the new year.
As is often the case with Morpurgo’s stories, it is set against a backdrop of war: 1914 in the Scilly Isles, and the World War One is about to get a bit closer to home for the residents. The mysterious ‘Birdman’ has everyone scared – some say he’s dangerous, others that he’ll put his curse upon you if you come into contact with him. Because of this, Gracie & Daniel have been forbidden from going anywhere near him. As they’re a bit scared by the stories this is no problem for them, until the day he retrieves one of their lost toy boats that got swept out to sea; after that they begin to exchange messages with him using the natural resources around the beach. However, when Gracie’s dad is reported as ‘missing in action’, she’s convinced her family’s been cursed and stays away – but not Daniel. The Birdman teaches him how to carve wood figures of different birds and tells him the history of the island, including the time that narwhals visited & the people greedily hunted them for their ivory. As the war draws on, the residents decide that its ill effects on them are down to the Birdman and make plans to rid themselves of him for good…
It has been adapted as a one-woman show; partly narration, partly action. In that way it is as if a bedtime read (or story time at school) has come bursting into life! A variety of methods are employed to help tell the story, including projections, sound & even a bit of live filming as a part of the set opens up to reveal the stormy sea that Gracie & Daniel encounter on their fishing expedition. As it runs for approximately one hour and is aimed at children, it is key to have a mixture of different things to hold their attention – as well as helping to tell the story.
There are some really key messages in the story for children to take into their adult lives, such as the effect of greed and that sometimes terrible things just happen – whether in wartime or normal life. Morpurgo doesn’t shy away from putting some darker elements in his stories, and Dani Parr & Danyah Miller’s adaptation sticks to this philosophy effectively.
Kate Bunce’s set, made out of planks of wood, is beautifully designed to incorporate all the different environments encountered in the story. Be it house, boat or beach, it’s covered! It is amazingly practical, with hidden compartments and some sections on castors that enable them to quickly swivel round. The selection of wooden birds is wonderful, and there are some imaginative ways of displaying some of Birdman’s messages – one is even left inside a carrot!
Danyah Miller was born to tell stories. She is immediately engaging and shows incredible energy in making use of the set, hardly pausing for breath. In moments of action, rather than narration, she uses distinct voices & accents for each character – it’s always clear who is doing what and makes the story very easy to follow.
My verdict? A fun & sweet story with some important messages, presented superbly – like the bedtime story you always wished for!
Why The Whales Came ran at Ovalhouse until 31 December 2016. Information about the ongoing tour is available on the Wizard Presents website – tickets for other venues can be booked online or from individual box offices.