Why the Whales Came, Ovalhouse

In 1914 on one of the Scilly Isles, young Gracie and Daniel defy their parents’ rules and local rumours by befriending the Birdman. He’s an ancient fellow known for carving sea birds and cursing the people he encounters. Though he lives alone on nearby Samson, their chance encounter with him that begins in fear evolves into friendship. 

There’s more to Why the Whales Came than this, though. Coming of age, grief, overcoming prejudice and the creation of myth are dominant themes in Danyah Miller’s solo adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s novel for young people. Though geared towards children, the complexity of the story and Miller’s engagement with the audience is infectious and appeals to all ages.

Miller begins her story with Gracie and Daniel, who love building model boats on their island home. It’s the search for a quiet place away from the bigger fishing vessels and Daniel’s nasty older brother Big Tim that leads them to bigger adventures. Their time with the Birdman teaches them lessons about both the kindness of strangers and doing good in the face of mob rule – inspiring messages for children and young people, even if not easy ones to execute in real life.

Miller’s grandmotherly warmth is engaging, and she’s an excellent storyteller. Her delivery is slick and confident; the children in the audience are focused throughout. Combined with Kate Bunce’s multi-level set packed with surprising doors and reveals, Why the Whales Came is far from quiet, sedate storytelling, though neither does it rely on energy alone to hold audience attention. The script is easy to follow but has enough threads to be interesting, but not so many that it becomes a mess.

Theatrical storytelling can be a difficult form to get right, especially with children who are now used to endless supplies of content across numerous devices. Michael Morpurgo’s stories are fantastic sources of material, and Miller truly makes this one her own.

Why the Whales Came runs through 31 December.

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