This is beautiful. Roger Haines has scaled down Charles Strouse’s Broadway musical, transposed it to the West Country of the 1950s and tailored it for Derby Theatre, where it is played on a big, circular thrust stage. It’s a versatile arena for a very physical play.
A scene from Charlotte's Web at Derby Theatre Photo: Johan Persson
The most energy is expended by Jake J Bowerman, who gives a radiant performance as the boy, Avery, never still and somehow managing to capture all the optimism of the post-war period. So does Hayley Ellenbrook’s open and sunny Fern, his sister. Of the eight members of the ensemble, only Bowerman and Richard James-Neale as Wilbur have a single role. The rest double and triple in delightfully comic guises.
There is a point at which Wilbur, baby-like in his thin, pink suit, sits cradling the egg sac entrusted to him by the dying spider, Charlotte, played with dignity and insight by Claire Redcliffe. It’s then we realise just how profound this story is and how much it says about death and dying and the cycle of life - all wrapped up in the fun of the fair, with rats on the make and farmers with an eye for profit. Inspirational, a class act of a classic tale.