REVIEW: The Storm Whale, York Theatre Royal Studio ****

Julian Hoult, Gehane Strehler and Cassie Vallance in The Storm Whale at York Theatre Royal Studio. Picture: Northedge Photography

The Storm Whale, York Theatre Royal Studio, doing swimmingly until January 4 2020. Box  office: 01904 623568 or at

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.

Cassie Vallance’s Noi in The Storm Whale: her second outstanding performance of the year in York

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.”

Julian Hoult’s Dad and Cassie Vallance‘s Noi in a Christmas scene in The Storm Whale

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.

Charles Hutchinson   

No rest for Matt Aston after Sleeping Beauty as The Storm Whale takes to sea

Julian Hoult as Dad, Gehane Strehler as Flo and Cassie Vallance as Noi in The Storm Whale at York Theatre Royal Studio. Picture: Northedge Photography

NO theatre director is busier in York this season than Matt Aston.

After moving to the city two years ago, he is directing his own adaptation of Benji Davies’s children’s stories, The Storm Whale, at the York Theatre Royal Studio and co-directing the main-house pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, with retired dame Berwick Kaler.

Matt, whose production of Davies’s Grandad’s Island played two seasons at the Theatre Royal, has been able to combine the two roles, directing rehearsals for The Storm Whale either side of overseeing rehearsals for the trademark panto mayhem with Dame Berwick.

“The Snow Whale was already in place for the Studio; I’d been in discussion with Damian and Juliet [now former artistic director Damian Cruden and associate director Juliet Forster], and then with Tom Bird [the Theatre Royal’s executive director],” recalls Matt.

“Then, when I had a meeting with Tom, just after Damian announced he was leaving and Berwick had confirmed he’d be writing the script, Tom said they needed a co-director for the panto and asked me if I would do it.

“I’d got around to writing The Storm Whale, and I’ve done this thing before of having to juggle with shows for Christmas, so as a way of organising it this time, I held five weeks of rehearsals for The Storm Whale, did the tech and got the show up and running for two performances at Pocklington Arts Centre on October 23, then put it into storage until the panto press night.

The Storm Whale director Matt Aston. Picture: Alan Fletcher

“Sometimes it can work better, going back to a show  after time off, so that’s what we’ve done, going into tech on December 12 and 13, dress-rehearsing on December 14, with the press night on December 17…and then I’m going to bed!”

Julian Hoult, Gehane Strehler and Cassie Vallance are performing Davies’s story of Noi, who lives with his Dad and their six cats by the sea. One winter, while his fisherman Dad was busy at work, Noi rescued a little whale that washed up on the beach during a storm.

A friendship began that night that would change their lives forever. The following winter, Noi’s Dad takes one last trip in his fishing boat. Noi is alone once more and longs to see his friend again, but will it take another winter storm to bring them back together again?

“Benji Davies’s The Storm Whale and The Storm Whale in Winter are two books very close to my heart as they’re firm favourites with my two children,” says Matt. “It’s beyond fantastic to get the chance to adapt both Benji’s books into one show for young people and their families.  

“And to do it again at York Theatre Royal – after having such a brilliant time on last year’s Grandad’s Island – has made these past few weeks and months even more exciting.”

The Storm Whale is targeted at children aged four to seven. “But oldies will enjoy it too,” he says. “When we did the show to a class of four to nine year olds in Pocklington, you could hear a pin drop at times because they were so caught up in it.”

Cassie Vallance’s Noi with a Christmas decoration in The Storm Whale. Picture: Northedge Photography

The Storm Whale is told with a combination of storytelling, song and puppetry. Is there a big whale, Matt? “Big enough!” he says.

Writer Benji Davies paid Matt the compliment of coming up from London to attend Tuesday evening’s performance. “I’d met Benji through first doing Grandad’s Island two years ago, when his publishers really liked that show and wanted me to do another one,” he says.

“After Grandad’s Island, The Storm Whale became the obvious thing to do, but it’s always a struggle with only one short book. The Storm Whale takes only two and a half minutes to read, but luckily Benji had brought out another Storm Whale book, which made it ideal to combine them as one show.

“I think it’s actually better than Grandad’s Island in many ways, because it really feels like a proper children’s play with two halves.”

To transform those stories from page to stage, “you have to remember it’s a show for everyone and you must not be frightened to have moments of mild peril in it, but first you have to gain the children’s trust in the first half, then introduce that ‘mild peril’, and then everything is OK at the end,” says Matt.

“The Storm Whale stories are about loneliness, and we’re not shying away from that. As Benji says, ‘it’s OK to be on your own but not OK to be lonely’, and that’s absolutely true.”

Staged by York Theatre Royal, Little Angel Theatre and Matt’s company Engine House, The Storm Whale will play the Little Angel Theatre, London, next Christmas and Matt is hoping to mount a tour too in between, subject to gaining Arts Council funding.

Meanwhile, after 14 years as a freelance director, Matt has notched up his first experience of working on a York Theatre Royal pantomime, Sleeping Beauty, after directing three rock’n’roll pantos at Leeds City Varieties and one at Theatre Clwyd, as well as two traditional pantos at Wakefield’s Theatre Royal, Sleeping Beauty and Aladdin.

He has worked too with another pantomime legend, Kenneth Alan Taylor, the Berwick Kaler of Nottingham Playhouse, where Taylor continues to write and direct the show after retiring from the dame’s role.

“York is my home town now and directing the pantomime was an opportunity too good to miss,” says Matt. “I know how important the Theatre Royal pantomime is to city, where it’s an institution, and it’s an honour to be involved.”

Sleeping Beauty runs at York Theatre Royal until January 25, The Storm Whale takes a bath at York Theatre Royal Studio until January 4. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

Charles Hutchinson

Copyright of The Press, York