It struck me that it had been some while since I had Chickenshedded. The work of the north London youth group had impressed me over several online visits in 2020 but time seems to have been galloping away lately and I just hadn’t managed to return. Prompted by the recent retirement of their artistic director – the visionary Lou Stein – I decided to opt for Chickenshed’s latest to video release Rapunzel which turned out to be one of the first shows that Lou wrote and directed at the venue himself and thus the release of the production neatly bookends his time there.
In some ways it’s a very conventional take on the fairy story though it also has a modern sensibility possibly informed by Sondheim’s Into The Woods. A framing narrative where a boisterous group of children are being got ready for bed and being read a story by their youthful child minder could not have been more traditional and the main element of the girl kept locked in a tower by a witch is firmly in place. The grieving regal parents of the stolen away princess also survive the cut. The rescuing prince, however, has been swopped out for a more egalitarian poetry writing woodcutter’s son and Gothel (the witch) is not the customary old crone but a stylish young woman who is keeping herself that way by utilising her captive’s magical hair (too complex to go into here).
New characters have been interpolated to flesh out the story including the witch’s henchmen – really henchanimals – a cat and a crow. Following its all-inclusive principles, the production also creates opportunities for a variety of ensembles not in the original (sleep fairies, spiders, gnomes, etc.) to take centre stage. The songs (Dave Carey) are all original but musically follow a more or less traditional pattern. However, even these are tinged with a more modern sensibility as we get lyrics about following your dreams, finding and being true to yourself and being kind to one another – the moralistic element of the fairy tale genre survives intact.
Most of the key roles are taken by young adults who (mostly) resist the urge to go full pantomime. Cerys Lambert makes a fine voiced and appealing heroine who finds the balance between the traditional and the modern while Philip Rothery makes for a (non-Prince) charming rescuer.
There’s evident skill in the cat/crow double act of Nathaniel Leigertwood and Will Lawrence although any more of it would have started to get annoying. The standout performance comes from Gemilla Shamruk as Gothel who brings the house down with the Act One closer ‘Don’t Mess With Me’. And then there are the hordes (and there are hordes) of the younger performers. Apparently the production contains some 200 of them and if you think that that sounds like organising a military exercise then consider this. The show had no less than four rotating casts meaning over 800 young people taking part throughout its run. Chickenshed’s inclusivity policy is made manifest, and the show also includes a pair of fully integrated signers (Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk); the online version, as always, includes full captioning.
While this isn’t the best Chickenshed show I’ve seen it maintains their high standard of celebratory story telling – the ending particularly is an onstage party. Next up from them at the end of May is their 2013 production of Sleeping Beauty though I suspect that they – like just about every other theatre in the country – are looking forward to being allowed to open their doors tomorrow. Let’s hope that with concerns about the new variant swirling around it will be for a bit longer than the last two false starts. Perhaps watching Rapunzel was a bit of an omen being a show about someone kept in lockdown for sixteen years. Ah well, there’s always someone worse off than yourself.