It is always great to see a show that celebrates friendship and kindness, but especially so at Christmas. The Storm Whale is such a production, offering a delightfully heart-warming adaptation of the popular picture books by Benji Davies.
A grown-up Flo narrates the story of Noi, a boy who lives by the beach. Whilst his father is out fishing every day, Noi is largely content to spend his time with their six cats, and looking for treasures on the shore. But one day, after a storm, he finds a baby whale on the beach and rescues him. Spending time talking to the creature it becomes clear that Noi is feeling lonely. Later his kind-heartedness to the whale is repaid, and his adventure leads him to make another new friend.
This charming production enfolds the audience in an excitingly sensory world. The beautiful visual palette of Lydia Denno’s design is delicate, but lifted by splashes of primary colour, capturing the style of the books perfectly. We are soothed by sounds of waves crashing and seabirds crying, and our imagination is fired as delightful puppet gulls fly across the stage. The fabulously lyrical language of the narration conjures the smell of sea air and the feel of the bracing wind, so we’re embraced in a totally immersive experience. This is a safe space to discuss ideas of isolation, loneliness, and Noi’s relationships with others and the natural world.
Fabulous choreographed movement, devised by Hayley Del Harrison, enhances the simple storytelling and has tiny audience members giggling away, as the characters speed through their actions. Cleverly evocative music and songs by Julian Butler bridge the varied scenes, ensuring they flow effortlessly into each other. He places us firmly at the beach, often with a hint of upbeat, energetic sea shanty making you clap along, but at one point somewhat more subtly with Handel’s Water Music, which is a nice touch for a show about a whale.
Keith Frederick’s puppets are truly delightful, beautifully crafted and look as if they have stepped straight off the page. Sandwich the cat is totally adorable and fun, but it is the clever use of a tiny Noi out on the ice that has the greatest dramatic impact. The sudden shift in scale impressively exposes the boy’s vulnerability and fragility, making it easier to understand his peril, as he shrinks and the harsh world expands around him. Returning his physical form to a human, it’s his honest relationship with his father that conquers his anxiety: a palpable message that love can heal.
The cast bring marvellous vitality to the show. As Flo, Géhane Strehler’s narration is unhurried and calming; a wonderfully reassuring backdrop to the adventure. And if I didn’t know better I would swear that Nix Wood is a small boy, with her amazing physical performance as Noi totally encapsulating the gawkiness and inquisitive nature of the child. Julian Hoult as the dad creates brilliantly funny moments but balances them with parental wisdom, and convincingly demonstrates that it’s OK for adults to admit they aren’t always right about everything.
There’s not much to fault this show on, but I might query why the cast needed to be mic’d up, especially in such an intimate space, and whilst evoking a briskly outdoor world. It seemed to add a touch of artificiality that detracted somewhat from the setting.
That little niggle aside, this is a charming and thoroughly enjoyable production. It handles familiar childhood issues with clarity and simplicity, and offers comforting reassurance. The Storm Whale is definitely the perfect Christmas treat for a young audience; a joyful story with fabulous puppetry, laughter throughout and music that will have you tapping your feet.
Written and directed by Matt Aston
Designed by Lydia Denno
Lighting designed by Jason Salvin
Composer / Musical Director Julian Butler
Choreographed by Hayley Del Harrison
Puppet direction by Sue Dacre
Puppets made by Keith Frederick
The Storm Whale is playing at The Little Angel Theatre until 30 January. Further information and booking via the below link.