The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Thursday 11th November, 2021
Fifty years after its release, the Disney film gets a stage adaptation, and I approach it curious to see how certain key scenes will be performed (the underwater scene, the football match, the flying bed…) From the off, you can see we are in safe and creative hands. The show opens with an extended dumbshow sequence, detailing the wartime experience of the Rawlins children and their evacuation to the countryside… Hold on a minute: orphans evacuated to go and live with an eccentric, and end up having magical adventures…. Isn’t that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe?
In this case, the eccentric who takes in the children is apprentice witch, Eglantine Price, who has learned her spells from a correspondence course. Price is played by a superb Dianne Pilkington, who makes the role her own — there’s not a trace of Angela Lansbury to her portrayal. An early scene when she attempts to fly on her mail-order broomstick while singing is especially funny. Pilkington is excellent throughout.
Members of the chorus bring on and take off pieces of scenery, items of furniture and props. The action is constantly flowing, with physical theatre helping to create effects like the bobbing along under the beautiful briny. Cinematic effects are translated to stage magic, with illusions and puppetry coming to the fore, so that characters can be turned into rabbits and so on. Directors Candice Edmunds and Jamie Harrison really flex their creative muscles to deliver the magic, in this inventive and delightful piece of storytelling.
Most of the songs from the film are here; ‘The Age of Not Believing’ remains one of the Sherman Brothers’ loveliest songs, and there are new songs by Neil Bartram which have a strong Sherman Brothers feel to them. Brian Hill’s book gives us the key plot points, with only a few alterations. On the whole, it works brilliantly, but I find it begins to sag in the second act. An example is Professor Browne (a splendid Charles Brunton) singing new number, ‘It’s Now’ in which he steels himself to take action, but only succeeds in slowing the action down! Hill also gives the story a different ending. I won’t say what it is but if you’ve seen the film version of another Sherman Brothers musical (the one about the flying car) you’ll know how this one pans out.
The underwater scene is there, tick box. Obviously, the football match doesn’t happen, but I would like more animals populating the island. And the bed is a marvel. There are many moments when you think ‘That’s clever’ and ask, ‘How are they doing that?’ — the show is as much about the magic of theatre as anything else (like turning to your imagination to get you through the tough times).
A hard-working chorus keeps things moving, including the wonderful puppets, And there is also some amusing character work from Susannah Van Den Berg as Mrs Mason and Jacqui Dubois as Mrs Hobday. Conor O’Hara, as eldest child Charlie, has a gorblimey accent but it’s not as strong as the one in the film so don’t worry. O’Hara has a powerful singing voice and delivers the emotional punch Brian Hill gives him. Charlie’s siblings (played, I think, by Isabella Bucknell and Haydn Court at this performance. Correct me if I’m incorrect!) also give assured performances.
It’s a magical night out for the family even if it does run a bit long, past younger ones’ bedtimes. It’s high-quality fun that will engage your imagination and touch your heartstrings, but not pluck them out!
Continuing the fad of adapting films into musicals comes this staging of John Carney’s 2007 film, which at least had original songs. These have been developed into a full score (by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova) and although the action takes place in Dublin it’s not all diddly diddly dee – although there is some of that to give local flavour. Enda Walsh’s book is brimming with wit, warmth and charm.
An Irish pub forms the backdrop, the kind of place where everyone can sing and play a musical instrument; the ensemble remain onstage throughout, observing like a silent chorus, reacting with subtle choreography, and contributing physical theatre where necessary, as well as shifting furniture and pianos and so on to keep the story flowing.
The story is a little slight: girl meets boy, helps him reconnect with his musical ambitions, setting him up for a life-changing trip to New York City…
The boy, or ‘Guy’ as he is referred to in the programme, is a vacuum cleaner repairman, disillusioned with busking and his musical aspirations. He is about to walk away from his guitar for good when up steps the ‘Girl’, a kooky Czech lass who imposes herself on him with unrelenting directness, in a resistance-is-futile kind of way. The result is a sweet and gentle love story, infused with a vibrant, rich score of pop songs and ballads, informed by Irish and Czech traditions. It is lovely stuff.
As the ‘Guy’ Daniel Healy is the least kooky of the lot, and it’s a treat to hear him sing and play. His numbers smack of Damien Rice – and this is a good thing, as Healy’s voice builds in power and expression and the ensemble joins in. Searing and emotive, the songs get you right in the feels.
The ‘Girl’ is winningly portrayed by Emma Lucia, getting lots of laughs from her character rather than from a comedy Czech accent. She sings very sweetly and when she duets with Healy, it confirms our suspicions that the two are made for each other.
Among the ensemble there are notable turns from the likes of Dan Bottomley as music shop proprietor Billy, Samuel Martin as a bank manager who can’t sing (a hilarious number!), and Susannah van den Berg as the formidable Baruska, the Girl’s mother. Lloyd Gorman makes a strong impression as Svec, ripping his trousers off to play the drums and learning English from a tawdry soap opera. In this performance, the sultry role of Reza is played by Hanna Khogali, bringing an exotic touch to proceedings – the show demonstrates how music unites us, wherever we’re from. It is part of what makes us human and something to which we can all relate.
A toe-tapping, hand-clapping, heart-warming production that celebrates differences between cultures while reinforcing the similarities between us all.
Dublin duo: Emma Lucia as Girl and Daniel Healy as Guy (Photo: Mark Senior)
Written in 1908 by Cicely Hamilton, this forward-thinking piece is given a lively revival by the team at the New Vic. It begins in the dormitory of Dobson’s store, where the shop girls are getting ready for bed. One of them, the rebellious Diana (Mariam Haque) decries their lot and the starvation wages they are forced to accept. She’s a firebrand and ahead of her time. But then she gets news of a surprise inheritance – things turn a bit Spend, Spend, Spend when she decides to blow the lot during a month of living entirely for pleasure. She winds up at a posh hotel in Switzerland where she is accepted among the toffs, as long as she gives the impression that there is plenty of moolah in her coffers.
With music hall songs interpolated between scenes, Abbey Wright’s likable production creates an Edwardian feel – not least due to Lis Evans’s design work with costume and set. There is a chirpiness that runs through the show – from Rosie Abraham’s perky Miss Jay, to Kate Cook’s bright-eyed and grasping Mrs Cantelupe. It has an authentic feel – the songs really help convey the sense of period. I particularly enjoyed Brendan Charleson’s nouveau riche Jabez, Anne Lacey’s Mrs Whyte-Frazer (along with a couple of other roles that demonstrate versatility) and the sterling support from Susannah Van Den Berg, Ceri-Lyn Cissone and Claire Greenway. Adam Buchanan shines as well-to-do wastrel Victor, who learns what is truly valuable in this life, and the superlative Andrew Pollard shows us all how it’s done with a delicious song to close the first half, a kind of Sweet Transvestite meets The Lumberjack Song, through the prism of the Edwardian Music Hall. Absolutely delightful. Pollard also displays his strengths as a character actor with a warm portrayal of a bobby on the beat.
Unfortunately, the fun and engagement engendered by the songs is not always present in the action. I find myself interested in the social commentary and the politics rather than affected by Diana’s exploits or her plight. I think it’s because the leading lady sounds like she comes from another time – she’s a bit too 21st century in her tone and plays it all on the same level. A bit more light and shade, and a bit more sparkle and pluck might make us fall in love with her a little bit. Instead, I find I just don’t care.
Yes, the play still – unfortunately – has much to say to us today in these times of the so-called living wage and the slavery of ‘work fare’ but what I come away from it with is an admiration for the ensemble and a rekindled appreciation of the songs of the day.