(reviewed at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage on 15 April)
The Stevenage theatre’s artistic director Catherine Lomax has been building up an impressive portfolio of in-house productions over the pa few years. The latest is a new staging of the Joseph Robinette and Charles Strouse’s musical version of the well-loved children’s story Charlotte’s Web by EB White, first published in 1952.
Set in White’s Maine, this is the story of a piglet who escapes slaughter, thanks to the feisty Fern, and is sent to be reared at the nearby Zukerman farm. There he makes the acquaintance of an assortment of farm animals, including an exceptionally greedy and know-all rat called Templeton (well, when did you last see a rat on stage cast as other than a devious specimen?) and the generous and intelligent spider called Charlotte (who lives in the same barn).
It is Charlotte, spinning ever more intricate webs, who saves Wilbur from the knife, much to Fern’s delight – though less so in the case of her stroppy brother Avery, their parents the Arables and the Zukerman household. White deals subtly but firmly with the sacrifice which Charlotte’s labours and her need to provide the next generation of spiders will exact.
The staging is very good with a succession of farm sets and some eye-catching costumes for the animals (Lisa Hickey), notably the geese (with goslings), the sheep (fleecy lambs by their side), great-coated Templeton and Charlotte’s bustled black with pendulous legs and extra eyes perched on her head like an aviatrix’s goggles. The country ‘n’ western-derived score is tuneful, if not memorable, and Khiley Williams has provided some energetic choreography for it.
Cameron Leigh’s Charlotte is a clever portrayal and well-sung as well as acted. Will Breckin’s Wilbur is as perky as such a prize porker ought to be with the forceful Harriet Payne as his human advocate and Matthew Collyer as a Templeton who has a distinct whiff of Animal Farm in his deviousness. Ed Court is quite funny as the Zuckermans’ clumsy farmhard Lurvy and Alistair Higgins stomps around as the archetypical teenage grump.
The five-piece band is led by Phil Dennis, and sounded at time a little under-powered. At the opening performance, Luke Hyde’s sound team hadn’t quite got the balance right, so that the opening numbers and verbal exchanges were over-miked while Leigh’s final scene and song seem to fade rather more than the spider’s own fragility at that point really warrented.
Charlotte’s Web runs at the Gordon Craig Theatre, Stevenage until 19 April.