My daughter is almost seven, the perfect age to start thinking about and discussing the powerful themes explored in Why the Whales Came, a startlingly timeless and surprisingly fitting adaptation for a 2016 tour. Her post-show questions began conversations about the play’s war-time setting and the paranoia rife in the island resident left behind. The community’s anxiety is intertwined with a fear of difference and otherness, and in particular of someone new living alongside them – this is a story about a small society which has lost its wider world perspective.
The play is set in 1914, and part of the pre-show action is an audience game of battleships led by fantastic storyteller Danyah Miller. We were still celebrating that our destroyer and submarine remained afloat when the lights went down and Miller was back on-stage ready for the one-woman show. With the rush of the sea and squawk of seagulls around us, we were transported to an island off the coast of Cornwall to meet friends Daniel and Gracie. As members of a small community, they’ve become scared of a mysterious figure the islanders call ‘The Birdman’ and are forbidden to communicate with him. ‘The Birdman’ lives over on a tiny island and his peculiarities have made the adults superstitious and suspicious, even believing they will be cursed if they touch him. Whilst convinced this is true, the 10-year-old children are also – of course – very intrigued. The thrilling mystery begins to unravel when their boat is caught in a terrifying storm and the two become beached on his shoreline.
The whole performance takes place on one magical set which is transformed by surprising doors, hatches and secret compartments into a bed, a jetty, a bath, a boat; at one stage a perfect miniature set is revealed with the use of a small camera and projections. This whole tiny play-within-a-play is manipulated by Danyah’s mesmerising storytelling skills; in fact, throughout the production, she uses the set like a gymnast, delivering a commanding performance that draws and reveals the characters and plot like a work of art.
This is the second Michael Morpurgo adaptation produced by Miller’s Olivier Award-nominated theatre company Wizard Presents; the first was the hugely successful I Believe in Unicorns. So it’s no surprise that this is a vivid, enchanting and beautiful gem of a production with a heartfelt message, delivered in an imaginative and thought-provoking way.