Apollo Theatre, London
INNOCENCE, EXPERIENCE, MEMORY, TRAUMA
Around a derelict room and abandoned trunk, Michael Crawford prowls, a tweedy, damaged old man at the heart of this low-key but unforgettable new musical: singing, remembering, haunted by a diary. It opens with no showy feelgood overture but an almost liturgical harmony as an ensemble of pale ghosts torment him with “We are still here…”.
No band: a lone grand piano with Nigel Lilley, the musical director, draws harmonies , discords and operatic recitative from the ever-shifting ensemble; who also become, through understatedly beautiful movement, not only characters but a strawstack, flights, a row of shops in 1903 Norwich. The music is sometimes lushly romantic, sometimes borrowing from Edwardian comic-song and ballad, sometimes as eerie and threatening as in an occult thriller. It is a hypnotic show: Sondheimish, in a good way.
So this new British musical (from Perfect Pitch with Northampton, Derby and West Yorkshire Playhouse) is special. LP Hartley’s 1953 novel became a famous film and lately was a BBC drama, but to make it a musical felt foolhardy. A tormented memory-piece about an Edwardian schoolboy’s loss of innocence, remembered by his damaged older self fifty years later, falls neither into the realm of rom-com or high drama.
But the composer is Richard Taylor of Whistle Down the Wind, who has just astonished and delighted us with the equally intimate Flowers for Mrs Harris. And, crucially, the book and lyrics are by David Wood. As our leading children’s playwright (remember Goodnight Mr Tom) he naturally homes in on the boy, the baffled innocent at the story’s heart. Roger Haines’ direction, deceptively simple, is in movement and emotional control a piece of pure theatre.
Crawford is the old Leo Colston, anxiously watching his past unreeling around him and arguing with his younger self, sometimes rapt in memory of the good times, sometimes horrified. The story (for newcomers) deals with a naive, awkward schoolboy Leo, invited by his far grander friend Marcus to summer at Brandham Hall in Norfolk. His shy adoration of Marion, the sister, gives him the task of carrying messages between her and a rough tenant farmer, Ted Burgess, without understanding how transgressive this is. The final disaster, for which the child feels responsible, has blighted Colston’s afterlife: the question is whether in memory he can find redemption. In an age very conscious of childhood trauma and dangerous memory it could hardly be more topical.
Although it is, of course, also thoroughly Edwardian. Wood’s text catches all Hartley’s period atmosphere: not least in the language and unawareness of the two schoolboys (peerless on press night – William Thompson as the sensitive Leo, Archie Stevens as the rumbustious, very funny Marcus, very Molesworth in his prepschool slangy “come on, old turnip-top!”). They sing like angels, especially Leo, Thompson more than holding his own in duets with Michael Crawford. But Gemma Sutton’s Marion is pure magic too: arrogant in her beauty, recklessly in love, manipulating the boy’s adoration, daughter of a time when, as her gentlemanly fiancé says, “Nothing is ever a lady’s fault” but she pays for that with her freedom.
The sombre, disfigured Viscount Trimingham is Stephen Carlile, again catching the period manner exactly, and Issy van Randwyck, correctly matriarchal, finally explodes into terrifying fury as her plans unravel. As for Stuart Ward’s Ted, he conveys enough crass roughness to underline the social impossibility of the affair, and enough solid decency beneath it to serve the tale’s climax and conclusion.
There are some stunningly beautiful songs – not least Leo’s yearning sense of emerging as a butterfly in the hot, hot dangerous summer, and Crawford’s redemptive finale;. The set-pieces, swimming-party, cricket match and denouement, are climactic. But it is the line of the story, the urgency and emotional truth Wood and Taylor bring out of it, which sends you away happily startled.
box office 0844 579 1971 to 15 october