I had high expectations for this adaptation of one of my childhood favourites. Adapted, directed, and design by Fi Ross, this ambitious piece is performed by students from the University of Gloucestershire. It tells the story of Tom, a poor chimney sweep who escapes a dark, sooty existence in favour of an underwater world.
A fun family-friendly show with visual appeal and strong performances.
There are a few revisions to the story I remembered, with Tom cast as a girl in disguise. The play opens with an assortment of upper-class toffs at the seaside, questioning whether there is scientific evidence for the existence of “waterbabies.” An entertainer, played by Matt Ferriman, who also does the music for the show, introduces a puppet show (which cleverly uses a beach towel to suggest stage curtains and two hats as puppets) to tell the story of Tom and the waterbabies.
Shannon Presley is endearing in the role of Tom and has a beautiful singing voice. There are, however, times where she is too softly spoken. Nick Payne gives a strong performance as her cruel master Grimes.
I loved the costuming and design of the show – an eclectic, visually interesting array of deconstructed crinolines, striped stockings and a steampunk, vaguely Tim Burton-inspired aesthetic. Costume and hand props cleverly transform: walking canes, parasols and fishing nets are used to suggest chimneys at one point, and when we enter the underwater world, hand fans become fins and oysters shells, while fur stoles become eels.
The musical sections are a highlight of the show while other parts of the narrative felt directionless at times, unlikely to maintain the attention of a young audience for long. The performance has some problems typical of shows with large casts – a crowded stage makes choreography messy at times, and lines are dropped or interrupted.
Tom’s friendship with Ellie, the daughter of the rich householders who hire Grimes and Tom to sweep their chimneys, is not drawn clearly enough. At one point she knows Tom’s name although the two have never been introduced. Reading the original story as a child I remember being struck by the class distinction and the contrast between the horror of Tom’s life in dark sooty chimneys and the pristine and respectable lives of privileged children. This is lost in this retelling.
While it felt slightly too long, The Waterbabies is nonetheless a fun family-friendly show with visual appeal and strong performances.