The Storm Whale, York Theatre Royal Studio, doing swimmingly until January 4 2020. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
CHILDREN’S author Benji Davies was in the house on press night, travelling up from the south to see director Matt Aston’s second adaptation of one of his stories.
Or, rather, two stories. It takes only two and a half minutes each to read Davies’s enchanting, award-winning works The Storm Whale and its sequel The Storm Whale In Winter. Put them together in one show divided by an interval, and children aged four and upwards will indeed have a whale of a time, with a little “mild peril” thrown in for the second half.
After moving to York two years ago, Aston’s company Engine House brought Davies’s story Grandad’s Island to the Studio in February 2018, and The Storm Whale is better still.
This time, the show is an Engine House co-production with York Theatre Royal, The Marlowe in Canterbury and Little Angel Theatre, in London, where it will play next winter.
As you take your seat, you take care to walk around Lydia Denno’s typically delightful set: the wooden floor evokes a sandy sea front, with the froth of a wave making you want to dip your toe in.
On her stage are scaled-down versions of a lighthouse that does light up, and the island home where a little boy, Noi (a name pronounced in the way the Northern Irish say “now”), lives with his fisherman Dad.
So do their six cats with such town names as Deal and Sandwich, the latter represented by a puppet that likes to leap on to Dad’s shoulder. The other five are in picture frames, or more precisely, bursting out of the frames to give them life and evoke playfulness.
The house front seen in miniature is then replicated in full scale, with a washing line, fishing netting, steps, a boat and a porch, from which the endearingly awkward, thoughtful, restless Noi (Cassie Vallance) looks out, in need of company when hard-working Dad (Julian Hoult) is at sea.
Our narrator is Flo (Gehane Strehler), who looks back at this story from the distance of initially erratic adult memories as she recalls how she used to lick the strawberries and cream lighthouse in hope of a sweet flavour. Flo’s own story will flow in and out of Noi’s tale, and she too is often on her own.
“The Storm Whale stories are about loneliness, and we’re not shying away from that,” says Aston. “As Benji Davies says, ‘it’s OK to be on your own but not OK to be lonely’, and that’s absolutely true.”
Through a combination of storytelling, puppetry and Julian Butler’s acoustic songs (one with a hint of The Pogues’ Fairytale Of New York, no less), we encounter the height of a storm and Noi’s subsequent encounter with a little whale, washed up on the sand and soon to occupy the house bath (later doubling as Dad’s fishing boat) as they bond in friendship. A simple story, you might say, but that’s why it goes to your heart.
Post-interval comes the aforementioned “mild peril” as Dad undertakes his last fishing trip but his boat becomes stuck in the frozen waters of deep winter. In his absence, Noi craves seeing the whale once more, and these two storylines overlap with a sense of wonder at the finale, enhanced by the puppetry.
Vallance was last seen in York stealing scenes over the summer in the supposedly minor role of gormless, goofy servant Fabian in Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre’s jazz-age Twelfth Night, and she is a delight once more here. Her Noi is wide eyed, curious for knowledge at ten, often hunting for treasure by the sea , ready for experience and friendship, and full of love to give, coming to terms with the loss of his mother.
Hoult’s Dad is stout-hearted, kindly, jolly, but feeling the weight of responsibility of now being the sole guide for Noi. Strehler’s Flo is an engaging narrator, as she moves in and out of the storyline, in a magical, moving, beautiful show for Christmas, cotton wool snowy rooftops and all.
Meanwhile, the inaugural Aston Kaler pantomime partnership, Sleeping Beauty, runs aground in the main house until January 25, co-directed by Aston and Dame Berwick. In sole command for The Storm Whale, Aston makes a bigger splash here.