With effortless fluidity, a vast projected sand painting morphs and blends before our eyes; from a scene of quiet contemplation in an urban park, to a tragic shipwreck in a shadowy ocean, to a man dreaming of his lost love, transfigured by his wandering imagination to the smiling form of a whale. It is a mystical and thoroughly engaging opening, as artistic director Cassimo takes on the role of story-teller and shapes the spilled sand from an egg-timer into a deeply imaginative and constantly surprising fantasy. Though clearly a beginner in the art of sand painting, Cassimo skilfully sets the scene for what should be a magical evening, which promises to craft ‘a metaphor for the human condition’ from the bittersweet true story of the wayward Thames whale. Unfortunately, this inventive introduction is the high-point of a deeply confusing, disjointed and misleading multimedia experience.

The remainder of the evening consists of a variety of sequences which circle, contemplate or altogether avoid what is a truly enticing central concept. Though the programme and publicity have plenty to say about the Thames whale, and how it captured the public’s and even the world’s imagination, there is precious little insight provided by the onstage content, and more than a little outright self-indulgence. There are comedic pre-filmed news-reports which engage amusingly though minimally with onstage performances, there are songs which flirt dangerously with tired Eurovision-esque balladry and, at the centre of it all, there is the dance and music of Rachel Riveros as The Whale and the clowning of Svetlana Biba as a curious bird, imbued with the consciousness of the story-teller.

The whale and the bird are nominally embroiled in a re-enactment of the tragic love affair between a young woman and the story-teller, though this would be utterly unintelligible without the programme’s copious notes, and far more stage time is given over to the Bird’s interaction with the mysterious Siren of the City. Unfortunately, no amount of prompting from the programme can provide the slightest clue as to her identity, or indeed purpose. There is some wrangling over a flute, symbol of ‘the eternal music of love’, and a good deal of playful dance and clowning before the whale meets its inevitable, and by now incongruous, end.

This is not to say that the production is without considerable strengths, but these are ultimately drowned out by their positioning within a digressive and un-moving non-narrative. Riveros’s dance is never less than engaging, and though the music would benefit from stronger orchestration, it builds atmosphere effectively. Best of all is Biba, who is a clown of rare and captivating talent. Her performance as the bird drew laughter, applause as well as real pathos. It is always a pleasure to view such commanding artistry, and it is no surprise that she is billed as one of Marcel Marceau’s finest students.

As a whole, however, Lunidea Productions have failed to successfully meld the numerous elements and ideas which they are juggling. Transforming the incredible one-in-a-lifetime appearance of a whale in the Thames into an over-familiar romance with fairy-tale trimmings is surely missing the point. Moments such as the sand-painting and Biba’s physical feats hint at the spectacular journey that could have been, but the piece would require considerable refinement before it would deliver on the promise of its concept, or do justice to the cumulative talent of the individuals involved.

Once Upon A Thames played at the Leicester Square Theatre, more information here.