We’re getting excited about welcoming the critically acclaimed Polka Theatre Company to Worthing next month. However, we obviously didn’t get the memo: they’re bringing an entire farmyard of animals with them! Philippa Bougeard looks at the appeal of one of their most ambitious productions to date...

 I think it’s a terrific family show,’ exclaims Juliet, the daughter of renowned children’s author Dick King-Smith, after viewing the brand new stage adaptation of her father’s book, Babe The Sheep-Pig at its recent London premiere. ‘And I think that my father would have absolutely loved it.’

There is no greater compliment or affirmation that the Polka Theatre Company and their production team could receive. Dick King-Smith is the marvellous writer-brain behind the curly-tailed piglet’s tale of the talking animal that originally made it onto the big screen back in 1995.

Babe, 1995. Farmer Hoggett (played by James Cromwell) fast became our favourite farmer. The film was a box office success, and was subsequently nominated for seven Oscars.

We watched Babe the film, in awe of the ‘real’ talking animals, and we were captivated as we witnessed one extraordinary piglet, when after being granted his pardon from the slaughterhouse. By a stroke of luck, Babe ends up on a farm, and from then on takes charge of his own piggy destiny. Inspiring stuff really, and many of us are unaware that this classic story derives from the book by the English author Dick King-Smith.

It comes as no surprise that a story that has received huge critical acclaim through its on screen success, is now being brought to life onstage, with a cast of West End performers and a troupe of beautifully crafted puppets.

Perhaps we also should take a look at the popularity of our fellow family West End shows that have involved puppetry. Casting an eye back, in recent years, puppetry has enjoyed a revival, regularly gracing the contemporary theatre spotlight. In 2009, London hosted its very own full-scale festival of Puppetry, ‘Scale’, and the idea behind this was to portray puppets in a new light, deeming them an imaginative and innovative theatrical device to modern audiences.

Action Shot: Three Sixty Degree’s 2012 production of 'The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe' in London’s Kensington Gardens.

Prior to this, in 2007, War Horse had galloped onto the National Theatre’s stage, and in no time at all, became one of the most popular London shows of the decade. Audiences were mesmerised by its moving, breathing, living horses; these were equine puppets, intricately fashioned from wood, hinges, nuts and bolts, creating a fully functioning form. The horses move astonishingly, as if by their own accord.

War Horse is a story originally written for children, by Michael Morpurgo. It tells the story of Joey, a horse belonging to a young boy named Albert, who is sold to the cavalry, and taken away to France where men are fighting on the front-line. Albert cannot bear to be apart from Joey, and sets out determinedly to find him, walking in the path of destruction and danger in search of his precious horse. It is a powerful tale that packs a punch on stage.

War Horse, which premiered at the National Theatre in 2007, is an emotionally charged performance, receiving five-star ratings across the board. The puppets are engineered by the Handspring Puppet Company.

Horse and boy together present a very touching picture. Like Farmer Hoggett and his trusty and loyal pig Babe, their close relationship conveys the special bond between animal and man, among other themes. Babe isn’t just for children, and the show proves this. The puppeteers have an amazing technical ability to stir up our emotions and fire up our imaginations, using the heart-warming story line as a way in which to do this.

On this note, I am going to attempt to dispel some of the misconceptions about puppetry and theatre. In tying in directly with Babe, here’s three reasons why Polka Theatre’s latest production is drawing in the crowds:

  1. The puppets are amazing.

You might think: puppets are fiddly, they take a great deal of patience to manoeuvre, and as it’s a difficult enough feat to master animal characteristics in acting, why not stick to real actors? This is exactly the reason why you should come and marvel at puppets in this show.

The animal puppets are a menagerie of farmyard folk, the puppets are visually imaginative and fascinating to look at, as various pigs, ducks, birds and cats are steered expertly around the paddocked stage. Their movements are carefully controlled, their mouths not a whisker out of place with the pace of their voices. It’s a joy to marvel at the sheer skills of the puppeteers, and these incredibly detailed and realistic performances create a whole new dimension to the show, particularly during the musical and dance numbers.

  1. The performers are incredible.

You might also think: am I going to be ‘convinced’ by a puppet? And am I going to be paying attention constantly to the person who is controlling it? In Polka’s version of Babe, the puppet and performers come together to create an imaginative world where animals and humans seamlessly interact.

  1. The magic of the original Babe story.

With sheep in costume playing fiddles, and a joyous infectious beat to the songs, which have a folky edge, we are reminded of how truly uplifting the tale of the little pig who manages to make it in a dog’s world is. Farmer and Mrs Hoggett smile benevolently, chuckling at the animals’ antics, as they sweep across the stage with farmyard pizzazz.

There’s no question about it. If you liked the original Babe, then you’ll love this new, smart and exhilarating interpretation of Dick King-Smith’s legendary creation and you absolutely can’t miss it.

Babe The Sheep Pig comes to the Connaught Theatre on 24-26 March 2017.