“If I drop from the sky, nobody may care but will they catch me”
Under Paul Kerryson, Leicester’s Curve Theatre really has become the incubator for some great musical theatre, reinventing stale classics like Chicago and Hairspray and hosting significant premieres like Finding Neverland and now a new version of Charles Kingsley’s children’s novel The Water Babies. Boasting an impressive array of special effects, a stridently modern score from Chris Egan and a fresh take on the story by Ed Curtis (who also directs) and Guy Jones, it makes for a interesting new entry into the world of British musical theatre.
The show borrows liberally from Kingsley’s original morality tale of Tom, an orphaned young ne’er-do-well who is framed for a crime he did not commit and whilst fleeing capture, finds his only choice is to dive into a waterfall whereupon he discovers a new world. That underwater world uses in turn inspiration from the 1978 animated version of the story, as Tom is forced to journey through a series of challenges, aided and abetted by talking sea creatures as he searches for the mysterious Water Babies who hold the key to a better understanding of himself and thus his future.
There’s also a contemporary feel to the teenage rebelliousness of Tom and his determination to do everything his own way, something highlighted by Egan’s score which is refreshingly vibrant and unapologetically shiny in its chart-friendliness. ‘Poppy’ might be seen as a dirty word by some but for a youth-oriented show, it feels just right whether in the cri de coeur that is ‘Catch Me’, the delightful back-and-forth of ‘The Last Page’ or the simply gorgeous swirling melody of female duet ‘Waiting For You’, the show’s musical highlight and destined to become a cabaret favourite.
It also allows the show to follow teenage mood swings from angst to humour and angst again in the blink of an eye. For a show largely set underwater, comic relief unexpectedly comes threefold on wheels. But the interplay between the marine trio of Samuel Holmes’ rarefied seahorse, Andy Gray’s Scottish lobster and Tom Davey’s Gallic swordfish is just delightful, their patter like an old-school music hall routine full of every water and fish-related joke you’ve ever heard and so guaranteed to bring a smile to even the most jaded of souls.
Tom Milner makes an appealing hero as Tom, sweet of voice and stubborn of nature, his learning curve is pleasingly complex as he comes to realise the world doesn’t just revolve around him and his brief scenes with love interest Ellie, who is stuck on dry land as he ventures under the waves, are just lovely. Lauren Samuels is excellent in what is ultimately an underwritten role and the show’s main issue, for me at least, is the undue focus that ends up shining on Louise Dearman’s Mrs D(oasyouwouldbedoneby), the cryptic fairy who knows most about of what is going on.
The role ends up as a pseudo-narrator and commentator, which provides umpteen opportunities for songs which showcase Dearman’s truly striking vocal talents, but have a braking effect on the flow of the show. Attempts to make her funny don’t really work and so it feels like a role that needs to be reworked slightly. But creatively, it looks fantastic. Morgan Large’s set is wonderfully conceived with some breathtaking projection work from Jack Henry James, evocatively varied costumes from Amy Jackson (her eel wins the prizes) and potent lighting from James Whiteside.
There are moments where the show lacks narrative clarity – I couldn’t swear to having the strongest handle on exactly what was happening, even in the final moments, the lady next to me had to ask if what she thought had happened had actually happened, and consequently there are no really effective emotional beats, no moments of truly grand emotion to pierce the soul. But one certainly feels that with a little work there could be, especially with a confident score like Egan’s and the considerable creative forces at play here.