Directed by Ed Curtis
Book & Lyrics by Ed Curtis and Guy Jones
Music by Chris Egan
This review also appears in What’s Peen Seen.
Riding in to Leicester on a wave of West End stars and special effects, Curve has scored a major coup as the opening venue for the global premiere of brand new musical Water Babies.
Producer Peter Shaw, also responsible for the 1978 animated film Water Babies, has long harboured a desire to bring Charles Kingsley’s classic children’s book The Water Babies (1863) to the stage, stating “the technology and the timing were never there … until now.”
The young Tom of Kingsley’s novel has aged and is now an orphaned, hoodied teenager, wrongly framed for a crime. Whilst avoiding capture he jumps through a waterfall away from his land-love Ellie and straight into an underwater world containing the Water Babies and a full menu of seafood. Guided by fairy godmother Mrs D, Tom needs to make ‘the right choice’ if he is to get back to the life he left behind.
So, was it worth the wait? Clever use of film, holograms and a roaring waterfall provide the ‘wow’ factor. Water-themed touches are used as a motif throughout Morgan Large’s Victoriana set design whilst James Whiteside has gone overboard with the lighting, using shimmering aqua shades and strobe effects. Both complement Amy Jackson’s sumptuous, watered-down steam punk shot with a touch of Goth costume designs; it’s all very sensuous and beautiful.
There are some great performances too: Tom Lister plays Eel with dollops of voodoo relish. He is definitely a baddie as he has the biggest cape, the slinkiest backing dancers and a cool song, Friends in High Places. West End star Louise Dearman as omnipotent Mrs D is the lynchpin of the narrative. Although not given the best songs, Dearman’s voice is still easily the best whenever she is on stage, a commanding presence.
Scene and show-stealing audience favourites, though, are lobster Jock (Andy Gray), a John Inman-inspired seahorse Terrence (Samuel Holmes) and swordfish Claude (Tom Davey). They have a bucketful of one-liners, a catchy song in Die Another Day and they all sit nicely on the edgy end of the Disneyesque ‘cute’ animal spectrum.
Many stories use the premise of an orphaned child on a quest to find their way home as their central theme. However, unlike a plucky Harry Potter or Oliver, key character Tom (Thomas Milner) comes across as a rather selfish, Kevin the Teenager type. Apart from the rapid establishment of Ellie (an under-used Lauren Samuels) as Tom’s love interest, Tom doesn’t smile again until well into Act Two, his time on stage dominated by frowning and grumpily challenging anyone who tries to help him. He becomes almost superfluous to proceedings, with uncertain looking choreography (which with everyone else was perfect) and by the time the rather muddled denouement came I was past caring about him. Parts of Act Two could do with a re-think; the great energy, humour and drive seem to fade, even with Richard E Grant’s lounge-lizard holographic turn as Kraken.
The scale and ambition of this production is impressive with the audience clearly appreciating what they had witnessed. It feels like it is almost there: a few stronger, more memorable songs would help as well as a more likeable main character. It’s not a bellyflop, more a good, two hours’ fun for the whole family and if you want to marvel at what technology can do on stage these days, see this show.
Water Babies is at Curve 24 April – 17 May
Images by Johan Persson