Review written by Flossie Waite
A Polka Theatre, Tom O’Connell Productions and Limelight co-production
Performances at Polka Theatre 25th November 2016 – 4th February 2017
For ages 5-11
I remember the first time my Canadian friend saw The Snowman, and how messed up she found it that we celebrate the festive season by showing our children this bleak, melancholic animation created by an author who uses every interview to remind us that Christmas is “a great fuss about nothing”. Whilst Babe is definitely less depressing (it ends with a jig, for goodness’s sake), it does sort of fit this British tradition – the protagonist spends half the play surrounded by jokes about his imminent place on someone’s dinner plate, ends the first act staring down the barrel of a shotgun, and (like his porky brother Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web) puts in all the work to win a prize only for his owner to get all the glory. In fact, Dick King-Smith’s story is thoroughly British – the tale of an under-dog(/pig) who avoids becoming Sunday dinner and excels in an unlikely career through sheer manners and politeness.
Based entirely at Farmer Hoggett’s workplace, Babe is unapologetically direct about everything life on a farm entails. Won at a fair, Babe is lonely and frightened and misses his mum – Sheep-Dog, who quickly becomes a surrogate parent, teaches him that loss is an inevitable part of life, and later we watch on as each of her puppies is sold. Some of Babe’s new neighbours aren’t all that friendly (the cat immediately attacks him) and though the fluffy sheep may seem to have a cosy, cuddly existence, theirs is a tough life threatened by sheep rustlers who try to steal them and terrifying worrier dogs who maim them.
It’s not all gritty realism though: at the end of the day, this is a story about a pig who herds sheep by asking them nicely. “If you would be so kind” Babe says, and “If I could ask a great favour…” whilst of course reassuring them that “there’s no rush”.
Much of the show’s comedy comes from Mrs Hoggett (I wish we could see more of her earlier on) and the production really comes to life when the whole ensemble joins in one of composer Barnaby Race’s joyous songs, illuminated by the set’s strings of lightbulbs. Puppet Designers Max Humphries and Dik Downey have created an ingenious cast of animals, from wheelable ducks with flapping webbed feet, to an alarming worrier dog puppet that has to be worn, to a wheel-barrow-bodied ewe, and a particularly winning Babe.
Though the story is dark at times, it still feels safe, and the staging, songs and atmosphere are characteristic of previous Christmas offerings from Polka. Babe, the Sheep-Pig is a sweet, familiar production in keeping with its festive predecessors.
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