'Babe' review or 'Baaaaaaa, ram, ewe!'

'Babe, the Sheep-Pig' - David Wood/Dick King-Smith
Written for Guardian Stage 



Why do those sheep look like people?” asks my six-year-old god-daughter, Blue. “And why do they have mouldy legs?” It takes a while for David Wood’s stage version of Babe to capture its young audience. The Oscar-winning film (based on Dick King-Smith’s book) is a tough act to follow; anyone who has seen this film weeps instantly at the phrase “That’ll do, pig”. It’s also tricky to fit a farmyard of animals on to the stage and into a relatively short script. There’s a lot to live up to and this family show about Babe – the pig who dreams of herding sheep – feels a little unsteady on its trotters.
Designer Madeleine Girling’s set is bold and practical. The front of the stage is grassy and open, and the animals (mostly played by fur-lined humans) have lots of space in which to roam. Behind the yard is a rickety wooden barn, which also doubles up as Farmer Hogget’s home. It’s a lively and homely set, but it does have some limitations. Most of the moving moments - particularly Babe’s scenes with Farmer Hoggett (Ben Ingles) – happen at a distance. 
There is, however, plenty of room for shepherding, as well as singing, dancing and general merriment. Barnaby Race’s original music has a lovely, folksy thrust to it and an infectious beat. The animals dance and whirl about, and even play the violin. Director Michael Fentiman herds his cast with real skill, and Blue bounces so enthusiastically to the music she nearly falls off her seat.
There are some cracking action sequences too – and the children shiver in sync when a wolf sweeps on to the stage. Girling’s “baddy” costumes are particularly brilliant. The sheep and dogs are funny and fluffy but the wolf – played by a leather-clad actor, Thomas Gilbey, with wires for a tail and a skeletal robot fame – is amazingly strange, and Blue talks breathlessly of the “robo dog” during the interval.
A few of the animals – including Babe himself – are represented by puppets rather than played by heavily costumed actors. Puppetmakers Max Humphries and Dik Downey have created a flock of ducks that wheel about the stage, a sly cat and a huge mother ewe, with a fluffy wheelbarrow body. They’re witty creations, but there’s something a little confusing about some animals being puppets and others being portrayed by actors; the sense of artifice never fully disappears.
Babe (controlled and voiced by Oliver Grant) is nimble and cute but he doesn’t quite become “our” Babe. He’s a pretty pink puppet right through to the end. When Blue leaves the theatre she raves about the singing, the sheep and the wolf – but Babe doesn’t get a mention. That won’t quite do, pig. That won’t quite do.

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