By Michael Morpurgo
Birmingham Stage Company
Tours throughout 2006 www.birminghamstage.net
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"We've booked the whole theatre," a teacher from the local excellence cluster told me. Well, not quite, because I had already bagged a seat at Hastings' White Rock Theatre for the Birmingham Stage Company's production of Michael Morpurgo's Kensuke's Kingdom. But to commit 1,066 (where else but Hastings) key stage 2 bums to a theatre visit means somebody has high expectations. And so they should, for the BSC has a tremendous record of putting on high-calibre children's shows.
To the plot: teenager Michael, his parents and his dog Stella, set off to sail the world aboard the Peggy Sue. En route, Michael and Stella fall overboard and are washed up on a desert island. Its only inhabitant is a Japanese sailor, shipwrecked during the Second World War; this is Kensuke's kingdom.
The show gets off to a slightly slow start, but this is not a criticism, it's merely reflective of the scene being carefully set. Let's face it, when you know what action lies ahead, you get a tad impatient. Even so, there are some lovely moments as Michael's grandmother serves her portentous warnings that, "you'll lose everything".
Theoretically, this production should be nigh on impossible to mount, with the story lobbing forth several seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Just how do you portray Michael being swept overboard - and not a drop of water in sight? Sound effects and some outstanding mime answered that one. As Michael writhed and rolled across the stage, I felt as if I was being sucked into an oceanic abyss.
And what about the animals? Kensuke shares his kingdom with a colony of orang-utans; suffice to say the costumes and actors inside them are entirely convincing. They have to be, because children are harsh critics, but not once did I hear a snigger of disbelief. And three special cheers for Anna Drayson, who plays a thoroughly believable and lovable Stella.
All human emotion is here: the excitement of departure; fear as the family is caught in a squall; despondency as Michael's mother is taken ill and they become lost; his terror when he is swept overboard; the growing bond, from tolerance to affection, between Michael and Kensuke (sensitively played by Ozzie Yue), and the joy when Michael is rescued.
There are also some eye-moistening moments - when Kensuke teaches Michael to paint; as he concludes that his family perished when the nuclear bomb fell on Nagasaki; when he refuses to leave the island, making Michael promise not to tell anybody of his existence - "My home is here. This is Kensuke's kingdom; in 10 years' time, you can say what you like, I will be just bones in the sand" - and years later, when Michael traces Kensuke's son, who has indeed survived the bomb. I admit that I left the theatre with tears in my eyes.
From a thoroughly hard-working cast, I afford special praise to actor Iain Ridley, who is a little older than the teenage Michael he plays. It is his first professional lead role and what talent he has. His diction, projection, stage presence and effervescent enthusiasm are a privilege to witness.
So, the BSC has excelled again with top-notch theatre for KS2 - and for KS3, because I am a firm believer that a good children's story becomes even better as you get older. And, thanks to its young leading male, it's also a show for KS4, in that it is sheer inspiration for anybody wishing to tread the boards professionally. It offers the chance to witness an excellent young actor demonstrate what the craft is really about. I was still on a high days later.