While everyone tends to know Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, far fewer people are aware of his other written work. Mostly mathematical and even philosophical they tend to be serious and somewhat dry. A notable exception to this is his long narrative poem The Hunting Of the Snark which relies on the same nonsensical approach as his heroine’s journeys into Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. This musical version was staged at the South Bank centre in 2018 and is meant to appeal to all ages from “4 to 94”; clearly this production sets its sights firmly on the lower end of this age range.
The poem has been adapted (heavily) by Annabel Widoger with music and lyrics by Gareth Cooper. It features an entirely new central character known as The Boy, neglected by his father The Banker who is only interested in the pursuit of money. However, they join forces to go on a Snark hunting expedition with The Bellman and his pet Beaver who enjoys a spot of knitting. The other two principal characters involved are the dastardly Butcher and the amnesiac Baker – the other hunters (The Barrister, The Broker, The Billiard-Marker, The Boots, The Bonnet-Maker – Carroll obviously liked the letter B for some reason) have gone the way of all flesh. After a voyage the hunters land on Snark Island and set out to track down the elusive and rare Snark.
Along the way they encounter, as indeed they do in the original, the island’s other residents the Jubjub bird and the Bandersnatch. The bird seems to be a close cousin of Rod Hull’s Emu, only ever so slightly more annoying. The Bandersnatch (apparently related to the Cumberbatch) goes around stealing anything it can find, including The Boy and seems to be there to give out a message about the environment, though I can’t say that whatever the message was, it was entirely clear. The Butcher, meanwhile, with her bloodthirsty ways and disgusting habit of spitting on meat, seems to be there to convince us all to become vegetarian. This being the 21st century The Banker has to undergo a transformation and eschew finance in favour of his son which, personally, I found an unacceptable level of schmaltz to layer onto Carroll’s narrative; one can only conjecture what he may have thought.
I’m assuming the show was conceived as a touring one as the setting (Justin Nardella) is functionally simple although still pleasing on the eye. Costumes are cliched renditions along expected lines but this is a children’s show so that’s probably as it should be. The musical numbers are rousing enough if not completely memorable; I think as Carroll had already done most of the hard work on providing words which rhymed and with a very regular rhythm, more effective use could have been made of them. Choreography was rudimentary and included a couple of examples of that current craze in 2018, flossing (how quickly we move on!)
While the show worked as a semi-pantomime for youngsters, I really don’t think it captured the whimsical tone of the original which has ensured its classic status. That’s probably not going to be a problem if this show is your first Snark encounter as there’s plenty to keep young brains engaged, although the recording towards the end betrayed signs of a great deal of restless chatter from the theatre audience. Having said that, at an hour and twenty minutes with no interval it is perhaps a little overstretched for the target age group. They were, however, clearly engaged by some good puppetry and maybe if I was six, I might more readily appreciate the broad brushstrokes of characterisation employed by the five strong and well drilled cast. Do they find the Snark? Well if you know the poem then you know the answer… if you don’t, I’ll leave you to read the original to find out. Or watch this production but preferably with an under ten in tow and then introduce them to Carroll’s poem if you can. Whatever you do, though, don’t introduce them to the Boojum…..
The Hunting Of The Snark is available on You Tube for “a limited period”. Click here
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