Derby Theatre, Monday 24th October, 2011
A man approaches a trunk in a ruined space that suggests an attic. He opens the trunk and takes out a diary. Suddenly the stage is flooded with ghosts in Edwardian dress. “Remember” they chant. A small boy – his younger self- clambers from the trunk. We are propelled back fifty years in the man’s memory to meet these ghosts when they were alive and when he, as a 12 year old, went to stay at their country house for one idyllic summer.
So begins David Wood’s new musical adaptation of the classic novel. Which I haven’t read. Neither have I seen the Joseph Losey film. So I was able to approach the story without preconceptions.
This is not one of those musicals where you can sing along. It’s one of those sung-through things but, thankfully devoid of the endless reprises so favoured by Andrew Lloyd Webber in his later works. This is more of a Stephen Sondheim kind of affair, heavy on recitative, with only a few melodic passages that veer towards what you might call actual songs. That in itself is not a problem. In fact, Richard Taylor’s score spills out of the onstage piano like a stream of consciousness, its moods mercurial and peppered with leitmotifs.
The cast are almost all on stage the whole time. Using the chest I mentioned before, some semi-pellucid chairs and the occasional branch or coat hanger, the actors create the necessary changes of scene in an emblematic way. The older Leo stalks his younger self, like a shadow, reliving the incidents from his childhood. This is a device I’ve seen before – in a recent touring production of To Kill A Mockingbird – but here it has more impact.
Young Leo becomes an intermediary between young lady of the manor, Marian, and Ted, the burly farmer from across the river. He passes love notes between them, without fully knowing what is going on, but gradually he puts two and two together and comes up with three. It is only in hindsight that the middle-aged Leo can add it all up.
It wasn’t clear to me what he’d been doing for fifty years. “I withdrew into myself” he says; the younger him complains, “You let me down,” and they have a bit of a slanging match, but I’d still like to know how he spent his life.
The cast works as a true ensemble. As old Leo, James Staddon is able to belt when he needs to while bringing a tenderness and vulnerability to the character. As a memory play, it is certainly more effective than that abysmal Travesties I went a few weeks ago. Michael Pavelka’s off-kilter set reflects the skewiff nature of Old Leo’s mental state, and the proceedings are beautifully lit by Tim Lutkin.
Unfortunately, for me at any rate, it was a triumph of style over substance. I was too caught up in director Roger Haines’s clever ideas and the style of the presentation to be moved by the fate of the protagonists.