Review - The Water Babies
Dive beneath the surface of The Water Babies and we find a classic tale with undertones reminiscent of its Victorian beginnings. First published as a magazine serial between 1862-63, it came shortly after Darwin’s Origin of the Species, which its author, Charles Kingsely, sought to satirise. String Theatre brings The Water Babies to Norwich Puppet Theatre, minus the dialogue but accompanied by specially commissioned music.
Nowadays, The Water Babies carries an altogether different feel. Our main character, Tom, is simply a child who wants to play with his dog and dance on roof tops like Dick Van Dyke. His life as a young chimney sweep and the adults around him force him into cruel conditions where playfulness is punished. Tom still has enough spark to seek a way out and we watch as shadows of the city disappear beneath his clambering feet. An imposing fence looms up through the shadows and our hero leaps over and into the river to his new life.
Tom paddles and glides dreamily below the current, thanks to expert manipulation. The long strings could easily knot mercilessly but look effortless in the seasoned hands of String Theatre. Changes in scale bring gasps from children close to the action - it’s always thrilling to see familiar characters suddenly appear in miniature. Shadows contrast enticingly with the intricate beauty of the marionettes and set. I’m a sucker for shadows and the gently melancholy instrumental that underscores the story with piano and tin whistle.
The passion and vision of this production is palpable through its complexity and I found myself craving more simplicity in the storytelling. The marionettes’ subtlety is mesmerising and succeeds dramatically even in small portions. The longer, quietly dramatic scenes prove harder to translate and stifle the pace. Yet, the beauty and movement of the puppets transfixes the audience, above and below the shoreline.
Overall, it’s a joy to witness the bridge at the Norwich Puppet Theatre being used to create an immersive, stringed marionette world that is is fast fading from practice. String Theatre continues to revive classic tales that deserve to be remembered and still have the power to enchant readers and viewers alike.
Produced by String Theatre