Babe, the Sheep-Pig
David Wood, based on the book by Dick King-Smith
This is a lively musical adaptation of Dick King-Smith’s book (which was also made into a popular film) about a little pig brought up by a sheep dog who wins the prize cup at the Grand Challenge Sheep Dog Trial.
It lasts about an hour and three quarters including an interval and held a packed house of primary and junior children all that time despite many of them already having waited half an hour for some other schools held up on their way to the theatre. Full marks too to the cast, already on stage as a flock of sheep in their sheep pen, for improvising action the whole time.
On arrival at Hogget’s Farm, Babe is adopted by sheepdog Fly. Her pups think he must be stupid and only destined to be bacon, but she looks after him. When he wants to be like her, she starts him off herding ducks. He wins over Mrs Hogget with his good behaviour and the sheep with his politeness: sheepdogs give orders and don’t say please and thank you. There is also something special that Babe must learn, with a little help from the audience, to ensure his success.
The play proper opens with the sheep, actors on two legs in fleeces and headpieces that leave their faces visible, making a succession of very individual baas that identify them as sheep. As each got a bigger laugh from the young audience it clearly works.
It is only then that the house lights go down and, as the sheep look out into the house one of them picks up a violin and Barnaby Race’s music begins to play, introducing another theatrical convention.
A dance number is used to rearrange Madeleine Girling’s set from pen to farmyard and the storytelling starts with sheepdog Fly (Nicola Blackman) sometimes supplying narration. Babe is a puppet (voiced by his main operator Oliver Grant) and so are ducks, a cockerel and a cat, though a turkey and the dogs are actors as are Farmer Hogget and his wife, who wear masks.
When some of the sheep don scarves and garments over their fleeces, this isn’t anthropomorphism: they are playing local people. It is confusing but helps things move on quickly. Later, sheep stealers will be shadowy human figures in dark clothing and a sheep-worrying marauding dog is a scary black wolf-like creature, half actor half metallic extensions, who kills Babe’s friend Maa sheep, who is presented in yet another fashion on much larger scale than other sheep and mounted on a wheelbarrow.
Director Michael Fentiman uses these different techniques as surprises that liven up the action but are rapidly assimilated and with invigorating music and movement the show has great vitality. Its pace makes stiller moments even more effective but it is not easy to follow the words in the full company chorus numbers; they need clearer articulation.
The constrictions of the stage space may make the actual sheep trial confusing for youngsters who’ve never seen one. School parties may have had them explained already and others already know the story. If you take a child who doesn’t, it could help to show them the explanation in the programme in the interval.
Perhaps you can also find an explanation for a detail that intrigued me. Mr and Mrs Hogget speak with a country burr. Where did they find a sheepdog with such a comparatively posh voice as Fly has?
This isn’t a sentimental piece. It’s clear that, if he hadn’t shown his special talent, Babe would have ended up as breakfast and, though Mrs Hogget welcomes him indoors, her husband would have left him in the farmyard. That mad dog is a bit frightening too but there’s a happy ending.
This revival of David Wood’s adaptation, first presented by Whirligig Theatre nearly 30 years ago, would make a delightful Christmas outing for any youngster. The programme doesn’t identify the casting, but all the actors deserve a mention.
In addition to those already named, they are Emma Barclay, Thomas Gilbey, Ben Ingles, Claire Greenway, Jaqui Sanchez and Lucy Thomas. The puppets were designed and made by Max Humphries and Dik Downey.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton