BWW Reviews: Disappointing Adaptation of THE SNOW GOOSE Needs a Rethink
The KBT production of THE SNOW GOOSE arrives with a yoke of great expectations around its neck. Based on Paul Gallico's classic novella, this reworking of the story features James Cairns and Taryn Bennett who were electric opposite one another in the spellbinding SIE WEISS ALLES. The novella is a much beloved piece of literature that has been the inspiration for a number of adaptations: a television film, starring Jenny Agutter and Richard Harris was made by the BBC in 1971, a 1975 album called MUSIC INSPIRED BY THE SNOW GOOSE by Camel and a puppet production that toured the UK in 2003. Unfortunately, this new version, adapted by Cairns and Bennett in collaboration with director Jenine Collocott, does not live up to the expectations placed upon it, missing out on much of what made Gallico's story so effective in the first place.
THE SNOW GOOSE tells the story of Philip Rhayader, a recluse who lives in a lighthouse in the marshes of Essex. A hunchback, he has been excluded from the community of the nearby fishing village, Wickaeldroth, and takes solace in his love for the birds of the marshlands and in his painting. One day, a young girl, Fritha, brings to him an injured Canadian snow goose, hoping that Philip will be able to heal her. He does, and the bird flourishes, becoming a symbol of the relationship between Philip and Fritha as it becomes deeper and more complex. When World War II breaks out, things start to shift dramatically for the two friends and the community in which they live. And when Philip chooses to play his part in the evacuation that has become known as "the miracle of Dunkirk", THE SNOW GOOSE accelerates towards a tragic climax and what should be a moving conclusion.
Gallico's novella is known for its sentimentality, so it is perhaps unsurprising that this production tries to balance things out with humour. This is accomplished mainly through the use of three characters: Fritha's father, his hunting buddy and the local postmistress. A fairly substantial subplot hinting at a romance between Fritha's father and the postmistress is introduced into the plot, but while it takes up some stage time and raises a few laughs, it adds little to the piece. To make this narrative thread work well dramatically, the situation has to be fleshed out a great deal more so that it too resonates with the major theme of the regenerative power of love in THE SNOW GOOSE so as to support the events that occur in the main story.
Another major problem that arises due to all of the new narrative points introduced into the piece is that the central relationship between Philip and Fritha is given less focus and thus feels underdeveloped by the time the play comes to an end. The audience is denied the kind of catharsis that brings to the surface the point that Gallico is trying to make about human relationships in THE SHOW GOOSE. As the lights dim on the final scene, one is left wondering what the purpose of the play is - and that is a problem. As a theatremaker, knowing why you are telling a story is just as important as the telling of the story in itself.
The various sequences are linked using two primary techniques: news reports that contextualise the historical period of the piece and snippets of popular music of the time. While the first of these techniques works superbly in punctuating the action, the musical snippets pull one out of the drama completely, particularly in cases where the use of the songs is anachronistic: "La Vie en Rose", for instance, was only written five years after the Dunkirk evacuation that is central to the action of THE SNOW GOOSE.
In their performances, Cairns and Bennet offer - with the aid of several masks - a convincing series of character vignettes. The episodic nature of the plot and the problematic adaptation of the piece give them little opportunity to develop the kind of fantastic character relationship that was a prominent feature of SIE WEISS ALLES. Cairns needs more stage time to flesh out his portrayal of Philip, who fades into the background when placed alongside the other characters taken on by Cairns in the piece. Bennet is at her best when playing the vulnerable and resourceful Fritha, which is as it should be. Her onstage appeal in this role in this piece cannot be underestimated.
Collocott's direction keeps things moving, but lacks specificity and depth. She needs to engage with this piece in a far more meticulous manner, shaping the production carefully so that it moves forward quickly and sinks into certain moments more deeply when required. The relationship between what belongs in the foreground of THE SNOW GOOSE and what belongs in the background of the story also needs to be renegotiated. At present, what is central to this story has been pushed to the periphery.
The design of the stage space for THE SNOW GOOSE is fairly simple, consisting of a circular wooden platform, a desk that is used in multiple ways to represent various things and a couple of non-specific wooden boxes. This works well for the piece, placing the focus squarely on the actors, who certainly do their best to bring the story to life. The masks used to differentiate between the characters differ in style, so what begins as a good proposal ends up splitting the focus of an already unfocused theatre piece even further. Perhaps the most glaring omission in the stagecraft of the play is the omission of any representation of the snow goose, barring a few feathers under a cloth when the bird is first seen. Its absence in subsequent scenes does not help in the struggle in this adaptation of the story to keep the central relationship between Philip and Fritha front and centre.
I do hope that this production is not the end of the road for THE SHOW GOOSE. It is a story that has great potential, not only commercially but also to say something simple, honest and heartfelt in this cynical world of ours. Hopefully Cairns, Bennett and Collocott will go back to interrogate their reworking of Gallico's novella, allowing a version of THE SHOW GOOSE to emerge as the moving piece of storytelling it should be.
THE SNOW GOOSE runs daily until 6 July at 20:00 in the Drill Hall at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Tickets can be booked at Computicket.
Photo Credit: Sam Lowe