Octagon Theatre, Bolton
Book : Dodie Smith
Adaptation and Lyrics : Teresa Howard
Music : Steven Ellis
Director : Brigid Larmour
Five years in development this is the musical adaptation of a much loved coming of age novel. It is surprising that it has taken almost 60 years to produce a musical on stage as Smith herself an accomplished playwright adapted her book as a ‘play with musical notes’ in 1954. A labour of love by Larmour and her collaborators it is an enjoyable affair but sadly not terribly satisfying.
Set in Suffolk in the mid 1930s it is narrated by its heroine the sweet but fiercely perceptive Cassandra. She aspires to be a writer and through her journal seeks to literally ‘capture’ the crumbling castle and its inhabitants. Her family the Mortmains are an eccentric bunch in the book but here they become faded characters stepping bleary eyed from the dusty pages of the original book.
James Mortmain, Cassies father, hides away in the turrets struggling with chronic writers block. Author of a successful and revered piece of literature he has written nothing for 10 yrs. Topaz his wild and bohemian second wife is a former artists model who floats around making oatcakes to feed her impoverished family. The actors are severely limited by the script. When a major song for Ben Watson suggests his passion and adoration for his ‘very particular girl” it jars as though it speaks of characters from another stage. There is little sign of the delicious Topaz floating around wearing nothing but her boots or of a frustrated genius who has written the equivalent of Joyce’s Ulysses. This weakens the plotline. We never really get to see what Cassie sought to capture or understand the importance of nurturing a great second book beyond monetary gain.
Lowri Izzard is delightful in her professional debut singing beautifully and capturing the essence of Cassie. She shines and this coupled with weaknesses in the script and in the performances of her sister, their American suitors and her friend Stephen mean that it is hard to care about the other younger characters. The older women blaze a trail across the stage bringing energy and waspish humour. The standout number has to be ‘They’re only men’ delivered with gusto by Julia St John and Shona White.
The music is always good and effectively evokes both the countryside and the castle, and the glamour of the city. The dance routines and use of physical theatre do not always work. They can seem under rehearsed or poorly conceived especially when they are all in London dancing barefoot and Stephen is just wearing an overcoat like a would be flasher or when we see a randon human gargoyle who looks more like a hoodied thief trying to raid the castle.
The visual portrayal of the castle is a chaotic heap of old spindly furniture which is witty and memorable. It towers over the performers like a crazy croque-en-bouche at a buffet.
There is a lot to enjoy but it somehow fails to deliver what was originally intended. This was intended to take a classic book and give it the flavour of LaLa Land success with a nod to An American in Paris and Oklahoma. Good intentions but perhaps too many ingredients and cooks in the mix.
At Oxford Playhouse 16-20 May