This new musical by Richard Taylor and David Wood takes its inspiration from the novel by LP Hartley (although many of the audience may be more familiar with the Joseph Losey film which starred Julie Christie, Alan Bates, and the young Dominic Guard).
This is a story of growing up, of first love, of grown-up ‘games’, of memories, of regrets, and about the stuffiness of the world in which young Leo Colston (‘my real name is Lionel, but don’t tell anyone’) finds himself when he goes to stay with his wealthy schoolmate Marcus and his family (mother, father, brother Dennis, and sister Marian).
We first meet Leo as an old man, fifty years on from his idyllic summer vacation, finding an old chest of memories and treasures in a dusty attic, and the moment of opening brings back the ghosts of the past of the Maudsley family, their servants, their friends, and the farmer Ted Burgess. The young Leo is from poor stock and is overwhelmed by the convention of his surroundings, standing buttoned up and sweltering in his winter clothes until Marian plans to buy him a more fitting summer garb.
The only full song in the score, ‘Butterfly’, is sung by Crawford as older Leo while young Leo (last night, a marvellous Luka Green) parades his new suit of Lincoln Green, and it is an emotionally soaring moment – the singing might not be in as peak form as in Phantom days, but it fits with the character, and in fact Crawford, always on stage, always seeing when he saw when he was thirteen, and sometimes even interacting directly with his younger self, more and more urgently as act two strides towards the tragic conclusion, carries the show’s heart.
Leo becomes a ‘Mercury’, a messenger boy, a ‘postman’, first innocently taking a verbal message between the injured war veteran Trimingham and the object of his affections, Marian (Gemma Sutton, who previously appeared in ‘Gypsy’), and then, more dangerously, taking letters and messages between Marian at the great Hall and Ted, the tenant farmer who had been previously dismissed as ‘someone we don’t know socially’ by Mrs Maudsley.
The social gulf between Marian and Ted is accentuated even in the early scenes, where the dreadfully snobbish Marcus tells Leo not to leave clothes on the chair, but to throw them on the floor, ‘because that’s what Henry [the servant] is for’. By the time the honour of the Hall is tested in the ‘gentlemen v tenants’ cricket match we know exactly where both sides stand, and why Leo, bored alone while Marcus is isolated by illness and keen to please the girl he is besotted by, gets embroiled in the forbidden love affair.
Picture credit: Helen Maybanks. Samuel Menhinick as Marcus, Luka Green as Leo.
The acting throughout this show is top-notch: Crawford is superb and your eyes might often drift to him, while you wonder what you would say to your own small self where you able to do so. Sutton is good as the conventional miss who wants to break out from her restrictive dresses and the family tradition which means she cannot marry Ted, but has to marry Hugh Trimingham.
As Trimingham (‘nothing is ever a lady’s fault’), Stephen Carlile is excellent, keeping the stiff upper lip even when it becomes fairly clear he knows what is going on between the furtive lovers, tapping out a cigarette in a servant’s ashtray, and calmly answering Leo’s questions about the fickleness of women. Issy van Randwyck is the frighteningly icy Mrs Maudsley, although she may veer towards the pantomime at times.
The musical accompaniment is from one sole piano, played by Nigel Lilley. This is supplemented at various points by the cast’s singing voices, which are beautifully arranged and performed, at times with their ‘Remember’ refrain a little reminiscent of ‘A Little Night Music’. The voices are in Leo’s head but they are also living and breathing the moment he picks out a prop from the chest – his diary, a cricket bat, a ball, a branch of belladonna.
As farmer Ted, Stuart Ward is rough at the edges, but attractive enough to tempt the young Marian who has been surrounded all her life by stuffed shirts and the traditions where the men retreat to their port after dinner, and where she is expected to marry well and without complaint. Ted offers her an escape from that, but it is an escape that can only be furtive and physical, which Leo starts to realise while remaining confused about the ways grown-ups believe (his discussion with Ted about the meaning of ‘spooning’ is as funny as it is toe-curling).
Photo credit: Helen Maybanks. Stuart Ward as Ted Burgess.
I liked the lighting in this production, and the way that a limited set became something different – a tailor’s shop, a statue, a farm, a cricket field, a church – often by a resetting of chairs or the use of the cast to provide details such as the straw stack Leo slides down prior to his first meeting with Ted. This only misfires slightly in the climactic scene where Marian’s secret is discovered, which is ‘revealed’ by the cast pacing around with umbrellas. The show does take a while to get going, and the pace throughout is probably slower than most other musicals running in the West End, both young and old, but it is definitely worth seeing.
Direction is by Roger Haines, and design by Michael Pavelka, Tim Lutkin, and Matt McKenzie.
Thanks to Theatre Bloggers and Stage Door for providing the tickets.