Derby Theatre, Friday 14th December, 2012
‘Tis the season for family shows, in which actors don animal suits and portray anthropomorphised characters. In Derby Theatre’s Christmas production, designer Jamie Vartan allows the human physiology of the cast to remain evident throughout with some inventive and attractive costumes that, accompanied by charming characterisations from the actors, suggest enough of the creature while reminding us this is a story of human values and concerns. Richard James-Neale oinks and grunts around the stage in a pastel pink onesie as prized pig Wilbur, Hayley Ellenbrook waddles and shimmies as a goose, and I particularly liked Richard Neale’s Templeton, a rat in a wide pinstriped suit. Claire Redcliffe stalks around in a remarkable spider costume, with goggles for extra eyes, and stilts for her arms.
E.B. White’s classic story has been transposed to the English West Country in the 1950s, and while some of the names remain noticeably American, the change of location works very well. It is a simple tale of friendship. Wilbur the pig befriends Charlotte, a spider in his barn. Charlotte makes it her life’s work to save the pig from slaughter. She weaves words gleaned from advertising materials into her web, proclaiming the pig to be ‘terrific’ and ‘radiant’ and so on. The humans buy into it and Wilbur’s life is saved. He is feted at the county fair as a prize example of his kind. It is a neat point about the nature of hype, and how P.R. can save your bacon.
The songs are melodious but not all that memorable but they serve their purpose within the piece. Roger Haines’s direction keeps the action ticking over; the show is never short of lively or engaging. The changes of tone are handled very well and there are some lovely bits of comic business. The cast change from human to animal characters so effectively you’d think the company was twice the size.
It’s a heart-warming tale of the circle of life and death. Charlotte is matter-of-fact about her fate, which somehow makes it all the more touching. I was also reminded of the remarkable strangeness of spiders – but my softening towards their kind only lasted as long as the performance; I still yelped and swore when I got home and found one in the kitchen.
There is also a message about the harsh realities of the farm. Little girl Fern forms a sentimental attachment to Wilbur because he is the runt of the litter. It is made perfectly clear he is to be fattened up for slaughter. I wonder if – and I hope that – some of the children mesmerised by this enchanting production went away with a more enlightened attitude towards the meat on their plates.
The production is uplifting rather than downbeat and deserves to be packed out for every performance. If you happen to be in the hemisphere, get to Derby and support this delightful show.