The Crowstarver

Adapted by Daniel Jamieson, based on the book by Dick King-Smith
Theatre Alibi
The Lowry, Salford, and touring

Production photo

Children's author Dick King-Smith often draws on his rural background for his stories, from his most famous book The Sheep Pig - which was turned into the Oscar-winning film Babe - to this story of 'Spider' Sparrow, who was found on a doorstep and brought up by a couple in a farming community. The Crowstarver was published in 1998, when it won the Smarties Prize and the TES/Nasen Award.

The story is set during the Second World War, which intrudes into the lives of the community via telegrams about lost sons and a German pilot shot down over their land. Spider grows up to be what was known at the time as 'slow' and has great difficulty communicating with and understanding other people, but has an extraordinary gift for communicating with animals. After some shocking encounters with bullies who taunt and then attack him, he is given a job on a farm as a crowstarver, or crow scarer, when he meets and makes friends with animals including foxes and rabbits (or 'vox' and 'barrit' as he refers to them).

This is a charming and at times very touching story, which consists more of a sequence of events laid one after the other than a strong plot line, but the events are interesting enough to keep the attention. However this means that the tragic ending seems to come rather suddenly from nowhere. The adaptation is pretty faithful to the book apart from cutting and merging some characters, which usually works but occasionally causes some confusion (suggesting to Spider that he calls his dog Sister rather than Mister as in the book makes sense, but Sister instead of Missus doesn't really work). The liberal use of narration, so often used in literary adaptations, is sometimes overused, such as by describing something we can already see happening or by breaking the atmosphere unnecessarily (the really moving, beautifully acted moment when one of the characters gets a telegram to say his son has been killed is the most obvious example of this).

The ensemble work from the performers (Chris Bianchi, Jordan Whyte, Derek Frood and Cerianne Roberts) is excellent; each, apart from Spider (Tom Wainwright), plays several characters and animals, and it is always very clear which character is being performed. They also all act as puppeteers for the tatty but wonderfully alive animals such as the fox, the rabbit and the lamb - and the cute fox cubs near the end. There is constant accompaniment from Ruby Aspinall on piano and Ros Stephen on violin, with music composed by Thomas Johnson. The set design from Stuart Nunn is very striking and effective, consisting of a very steep ramp on which most of the action takes place with a silhouetted tree branch overhead and a painted backdrop.

This is a charming and moving production of a lovely story that looks impressive and has a wonderful cast that works very well together. It is billed as for children aged 8 to 13, but is a good family show that seemed to be at least as popular with the adults as with the children.

"The Crowstarver" tours until 27 May

Reviewer: David Chadderton