‘The Snail and the Whale’ review

Theatre, West End
3 out of 5 stars
 'The Snail and the Whale'
Photograph: Courtesy of Tall Stories 'The Snail and the Whale'

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

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Tall Stories’s take on the beloved Julia Donaldson picturebook is imaginative but doesn’t quite work

The question of how you convert a beloved picturebook with, say, 20 pages into a 55-minute piece of stage entertainment is essentially the central challenge of kids’ theatre. It doesn’t matter how amazing the source material is: if you do nothing more than have the actors read out the words in the book then there's maybe five minutes of entertainment.

Overwhelmingly, the preferred choice is to fill the time by making the characters sing songs, with additional dialogue and interactive bits usually tacked on for good measure.

Kids’ theatre company Tall Stories is a veteran of this approach. But in ‘The Snail and the Whale’ – a 2012 adaptation making its West End debut this Christmas – it's tried something a little different, and I’m not sure it has totally worked.

It’s not really a padded version of Julia Donaldson and Axel Sheffler’s hit 2003 book about a snail that travels the world on the back of a giant whale. Instead it’s an original play about a daughter who loves said book, and her dad, who works at sea (in effect she is the snail and he is the whale).

Certainly it’s done with considerable love and care, and there’s a very nice touch in Charlotte Mafham as the older version of the girl. Not only does she serve as narrator, but she does the sound effects too, wrenching all manner of noises out of her electric viola.

Nonetheless: the story, while charming and even poignant, feels a bit shapeless; and while, technically, the whole of the original ‘The Snail and the Whale’ is recited, it’s so dispersed and recontextualised it doesn't really feel like we’re getting it.

Aimed at ages four-plus, this is a fine introduction to the idea of reinterpreting a piece and considering its themes. It is also undeniably charming and inventive. It just isn’t really ‘The Snail and the Whale’.

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