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Singing sheep, a tuba playing cockerel, a talking pig – the Mercury's Babe has it all

PUBLISHED: 07:18 22 July 2018

Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production, in rehearsals. Photo: Robert Day

Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production, in rehearsals. Photo: Robert Day

Robert Day

Colchester’s Mercury Theatre is looking to inject a little musical magic into the summer holidays with their new production of Babe: The Sheep-Pig. Arts editor Andrew Clarke spoke to director Katie Posner about celebrating the theatrical nature of the show

Ebony Feare, James Peake, Rachel Hammond & Joseph Tweedale in rehearsal for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert DayEbony Feare, James Peake, Rachel Hammond & Joseph Tweedale in rehearsal for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert Day

Babe, the sweet-talking sheep-pig, is a star of both film and literature thanks to the inventiveness of his creator Dick King Smith; now the piglet with an identity crisis is set for a spotlight on the stage.

The Colchester Mercury is producing a musical version of the family classic as their summer showcase.

In a version by David Wood, described as ‘the national children’s dramatist’ by The Times, this playful adaptation offers audiences a farmyard adventure packed with music, puppetry, love and laughter.

Katie Posner directing  rehearsals for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert DayKatie Posner directing rehearsals for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert Day

It’s a touching tale which has captivated millions of children in book-form before being turned into an Oscar-winning film with James Cromwell.

The story starts when Farmer Hoggett wins Babe, an orphaned piglet, at the village fair. Adopted by Hoggett’s faithful sheepdog, Fly, the little pig soon settles into farmyard life. But, as he begins to find his place amongst the animals, a sudden threat to the sheep flock gives Babe a taste for the thrills of herding and his life is changed forever.

It’s not long before Babe is accompanying the farmer to the fields every day, and to his delight Hoggett finally asks the question: does this little piglet have what it takes to become a real Sheep-Pig?

Jonathon Cobb, Jessica Dyas, Gareth Clarke in rehearsal for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert DayJonathon Cobb, Jessica Dyas, Gareth Clarke in rehearsal for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert Day

Directed by Katie Posner, the Mercury’s summer extravaganza combines comedy, drama, music and puppetry to tell a heartwarming tale.

Katie says that the eight strong cast have enjoyed developing the characters and their relationships during rehearsals, making each individual stand out.

“The cast are wonderfully disappearing into their roles. We only have two puppets in the piece. Babe is a rather wonderful puppet and the only other one is a duck, everything else is played by our team of actors.

Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production, in rehearsals. Photo: Robert DayBabe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production, in rehearsals. Photo: Robert Day

“They play dogs and sheep, cats and turkeys and a cockerel – there are lots of quick changes. I love the way they can zip in and out of different physicalities, just conjuring up the manner of various farm animals.”

She believes that making a virtue of the theatrical nature of the show will add to the atmosphere and immersive nature of the piece. “I was really interested in using actors and their glorious craft because if you are surrounded by young people and families and you harness their imaginations then magic can happen.

“I love the mechanics of theatre. The fact that you can be a dog or a cockerel, that audiences can take that leap with you and be transported into this marvellous world which previously only existed in the writer’s imagination.”

James Peake, Jospeh Tweedale, Rachel Hammond & Ebony Feare in rehearsal for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert DayJames Peake, Jospeh Tweedale, Rachel Hammond & Ebony Feare in rehearsal for Babe, The Sheep-Pig, Colchester Mercury's summer production. Photo: Robert Day

She loves the idea that theatre has finally embraced the summer months, after traditionally being dark for a couple of months in July and August. “It’s been a long time coming but, being the mother of a four year old, I welcome the advent of high quality theatre in the summer months. We know it’s not wall-to-wall sunshine and offering families something different in the school holidays is an absolute necessity.

“It’s a fun, poignant story. David Wood has done a fantastic adaptation. It’s funny and, at the same time, quite moving. It’s quite lean. It’s very true to the book and cleverly done. It’s a swift, fluid telling of the story.

“As a director, I didn’t want to make anything too twee. I was interested in the physicality of the characters and I wanted to produce something that was fast-paced, fun, energetic. We have a fabulous set by Sara Perks, which has been inspired by lots of different textures which has then leant itself to the look of the costumes. There’s no lots of fur or things like that, it’s about harnessing your imagination.”

One of her favourite elements of the show is the sheep, who act like a Greek Chorus, who tell the story of Babe. “We have four sheep who I call The Baa-baa Shop Quartet, and they sing, they rap and they dance and they engage with the audience and tell the story of this extraordinary little pig. They play a myriad of different instruments, at times they are opera sheep, sometimes they are enchanted sheep, and they guide us through the story.”

Babe, The Sheep-Pig, by David Wood, based on the book by Dick King-Smith, runs at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester from July 27 to August 26. Booking information can be found online at mercurytheatre.co.uk

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