Kensuke's Kingdom

Michael Morpurgo, adapted for the stage by Stuart Paterson
Birmingham Stage Company
The Lowry, Salford Quays, and touring

Publicity graphic

Award-winning children's author Michael Morpurgo, who was Children's Laureate from 2003 to 2005, won a Children's Book Award, was shortlisted for the Whitbread and Federation of Children's Book Awards and was nominated for a Carnegie Medal for this story about a young boy who was rescued from the sea by a former Japanese soldier from the Second World War.

Michael's father buys a sailboat with his redundancy money and persuades his wife to train as a yachtsman, then the three of them - plus their dog, Stella Artois - set off on a journey of a lifetime, sailing around the world. However mother falls ill, and while Michael is put in charge of steering, he and Stella are washed overboard. He wakes up on a tiny, remote island inhabited only by an old Japanese man called Kensuke who has been there since his ship was wrecked there at the end of the Second World War. Kensuke resents the presence of another human being on his island, but helps Michael to survive.

Morpurgo's wonderful story consists of little bits of action scattered over many months, which works well in the novel but does not lend itself easily to a dramatic translation. Paterson's adaptation does not really solve these difficulties. The first half contains a lot of long monologues, mostly of Michael reading from his ship's log, which feels like sitting in the theatre having excerpts from the novel read to us when we would rather see what we are being told about. In the second half we go to the other extreme, where time is compressed so much that there is no time for suspense or danger to build up before it is dissipated, so the excitement and tension that exists in the novel is drained from the play.

This lack of excitement is emphasised by some half-hearted acting from most of the cast. Ozzie Yue demonstrates at times that he is very capable in the part of Kensuke, but he seems to be toning down the more unpleasant aspects of his character for a young audience, which makes everything seem nice and unthreatening. The rest of the cast is mostly very inexperienced, and director Greg Banks does not really bring them together successfully. There is some quite effective playing of animals, by Anna Drayson as the dog and Mark Carleton, Hannah Birkin and Neil Suarez as the orangutans (they also played dad, mum and grandmother respectively at this performance - Julia Hickman, who usually plays mum, was indisposed).

Jacqueline Trousdale has created an ingenious design for the production, which changes from a boat to Kensuke's island before our eyes, and then becomes something that looks like The Lion King in miniature for act two. The set looks good and provides plenty of levels for the actors to explore.

Birmingham Stage Company has created a production that looks quite good and is entertaining in parts but does not at all do justice to the novel it was based on.

Peter Lathan reviewed this production at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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