The Water Babies
London MIME Festival 2020

Reviewer's rating

The Water Babies is full of wonderment and interest in nature, but lacks urgency and feels dry and unbalanced, dipping too heavily into melancholy that lands flatter than it should. Its greatest strength is its imagery – certain magical moments will probably linger in my dreams: the protagonist as a shadow puppet languidly pulling items along a walkway that keeps lengthening, or as a long-string marionette throwing a bubble to a fish in a game of catch, or dancing underwater with vivid sea creatures.

The Water Babies is based on a 1863 children’s book by Charles Kingsley, writer of nationalistic historical novels like Westward Ho! The story emerged from his concern for sanitary reform and his interest in natural history and evolution. This was a time of Charles Darwin, continued European exploration, and chimney sweeping. As a historical piece, The Water Babies is interesting. In the 1860s, it would have been political. Staged today however, it has little to say.

Tom, the protagonist, is playing with his dog when, at a moment that they’re separate, a man named Grimes comes by and forcibly employs Tom as a chimney sweep. After a while he escapes through a chimney, along rooftops, and through a forest, and falls asleep in a stream. Then, at the bottom of the sea, he is transformed by fairies into a Water Baby and makes friends with the creatures of the sea. Functionally, a Water Baby is a person who can live above and below water. It seems like Tom’s dog gets the same treatment by the fairies, giving them an idyllic end in a friendly community of sea creatures.

In the 1860s, The Water Babies would have been an imaginative exploration into the possibility of physical transformation, inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution. It would have been a sympathetic look into the dark life of a chimney sweep that affirmed the boy’s humanity by creatively bringing him into an inverted fantasy world that predates Alice’s wonderland by two years. However, outside of its context, it feels dated. The details that would anchor the production historically are not developed clearly enough to land with emotional weight. What was Tom’s life like as a chimney sweep? What were the stakes in Grimes’ relationship with Tom? Grimes is always tyrannically distant in this production, which makes it hard to comprehend the severity of Tom’s situation. It feels as if there’s something missing that’s making Tom feel too much like an abstract allegory, too unspecific to connect to, so that the lows don’t feel low enough and the highs don’t feel high enough. Tom looks into a mirror melancholically and we understand that he’s unhappy, but for some reason, all I feel is a polite pity – and judging by the tired eyes I saw around me, I don’t think I was alone.

What The Water Babies conveys most saliently is a prolonged sense of wonderment about the world and its mysteries. This is good, even magical in some moments, but feels unbalanced. In the second act, Tom interacts with one creature after another: he’s overcoming his fear of a big fish, or wandering around a caterpillar, getting fluttered at by a fairy’s leaf wand, or watching a large caddisfly emerge from a log. The problem is not that these moments drag on, but that as unique as the creatures look, their interactions with Tom all seem to follow the same arc, so they become vapid. My eyes feel pleased, but I’m left wanting more.