I haven't seen a children's play for some time, so I have to admit to feeling some trepidation in venturing out to the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park to see 'Babe, the sheep-pig'. But the daunting, if not terrifying prospect of spending an afternoon watching a play in the company of several hundred diminutive humans turned out in fact to be highly agreeable, if not thoroughly enjoyable. Not only were the 'little darlings' in commendably attentive form, but the production itself set a benchmark for children's theatre that will be difficult, if not impossible, to beat.
Based on Dick King-Smith's book 'The Sheep-Pig', and adapted by director David Wood, 'Babe' is the story of a pig who, when won by Farmer Hogget in a 'guess the weight of the pig' contest at a local village fair, is adopted by the farmer's sheep dog, Fly (played with delicate, maternal charm by Billie-Claire Wright) and before long wants to become a sheep 'dog' himself.
Of course, dramatic licence is allowed to have its day in any children's play. But thanks to Dick King-Smith's realistic storyline, and David Wood's subtle adaptation and sensitive direction, the fantasy element is carefully kept in check. Although the many animals we're introduced to can talk and convey human emotions, neither the script nor the plot brushes over sensitive and emotionally charged issues. For example, when a group of sheep-worrying dogs attack the farmer's flock at night, the oldest ewe (who we've already grown rather fond of) is killed. Though we were angered and outraged at the event, the way it was handled by cast and director alike also gave us a sense that this was the natural way of things – teaching both adults and youngsters something important about nature, death and fate.
It's tempting to think that the standard of acting is going to be lower in a children's play than in one intended largely for adults – after all, it's only for kids who haven't yet developed the sense of jaundiced criticism that their adult counterparts have refined. But if that's your take, you'd better think again. Because this play excels in the acting department, and produces fine and thoughtful performances all-round, and not only because it's very well cast. Yes, it's a play for children (and their parents) but it's a highly professional and polished production that any theatre in the land would be immensely proud to have conceived.
The trick which the actors have all learnt is that they don't need to 'talk down' to the kids. If anything in fact, they do quite the opposite. So there's never a sense that the cast are 'spelling things out' for the audience, or reducing the tale to inconsequential twaddle.
Movement in this show is at the forefront. There are some scenes where, quite appropriately, there is no dialogue - and this from one who often berates authors like Andrew Lloyd Webber for not having sufficient dialogue in productions. But here, actions often speak much louder and more directly than words. And movement is a fundamentally important element to help the actors convince us that they are indeed the animals they are portraying. And all of them succeed. In particular, I enjoyed Billie-Claire Wright's bouncy, jogging gait as Fly the sheep dog. And Leo Conville's lively and exuberant Babe, gave us a polite, youthful pig, even if his slobbering eating habits would be unwelcome in any restaurant.
Most of the sheep and two of the sheep dogs are played by children, and all turn in enthusiastic and impressive performances that reflect a considerable amount of hard work and a huge amount of talent too. With child actors, there's often a sense that they can't quite keep in character, but not here. Twitching, shuffling and nodding their heads, these young actors were sheep inside as well as out. And the two youngest members of the cast - playing sheep dog puppies - gained our admiration and respect, and not just because they managed to remember their cues and lines perfectly!
There's also great support from Deddie Davies as the down-to-earth Farmer's wife and the slightly dour Anthony Pedley as Farmer Hogget. And Melody Kaye gave a touching and humorous portrayal as the ageing ewe, Ma.
Of course, director David Wood has legitimately used one or two well-worn devices to tell the tale. He employs slow motion during a couple of scenes, but it's effective because it gives those with developing brains (or declining ones, like reviewers!) the chance to keep up with events. Though the play's pace rarely feels hurried, it's also never pedestrian or laboured. There's a lot happening throughout this piece, yet I always felt I understood exactly what was going on and why - something mainstream drama could learn from. The timing is simply superb, and though the second half is short, the entire performance is just about the perfect length to maintain everyone's attention throughout.
What struck me most about seeing this play was that I had imagined the technically-adept, modern under-10s to be rather blasé about a story like this, and too 'grown-up' to watch a 'low tech' play. But in fact, the children (and, indeed, the adults) in this audience, loved every minute of it. And that not only says something positive (and hopeful) about our children, but it also speaks volumes for a production which is a beacon of exemplary children's theatre.
Full marks also go the Open Air Theatre for their efforts in creating a marvellous atmosphere to accompany the play. As you enter the theatre grounds, burbling machines billow their bubbles over the whole site, and there's the chance to have your face painted near to the picnic tables which are suitably adorned with jolly table cloths. And the programme is child-friendly, with some great pictures and neat puzzles to keep the kids amused before the start of the show, during the interval or on the way home.
With commendably affordable prices, if you have children to entertain during the school hol's, you won't do better than 'Babe, the sheep-pig'. A captivating and unmissable treat – it's children's theatre at its very best.