Sunday 11th November, matinée
One of the many joys of being a fan of Howard Goodall’s musicals is that it sends you to a whole variety of new venues. Last time it was Ye Olde Rose and Crown in Walthamstow to see Love and War, and this time the professional premier of Goodall’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’, reworked for the occasion, took us to the Landor Theatre in Clapham for the first time, a pleasant venue, slightly classier than your average pub theatre with nice seats, but most definitely compact and bijou.
We wondered if such a small stage could encompass palaces, rolling hills and the sea. Well, the answer is no of course, but director Andrew Keates has used the space very effectively, with a simple backdrop by designer Martin Thomas using sliding flats, clever lighting by Howard Hudson and plenty of haze (not sure who is responsible for that). He has also kept props to a minimum and keeps the actors moving along with the action, choreographing a relatively large cast with great skill in and out of the space. We did find some aspects of the costumes and apparent time setting a bit confusing. It looks as though costumes have been kept deliberately non-specific with an eclectic mix of suits, long dresses, and some rather interesting medieval regal wear – at one point the chorus have old-fashioned cameras round their necks. In the end, once we’d realised that there wasn’t too much rhyme or reason to the setting it wasn’t too intrusive, and we focussed instead on the action and of course the music.
It is probably fair to say that Howard Goodall’s music is the main reason to see this production. It is hard for us to make a direct comparison between this musical and the source material, Shakespeare’s play ‘The Winter’s Tale’, having not seen a production of the original, but it seems that Goodall has found the perfect vehicle for his music, and a way to explore deeper and more dramatic themes. His passion for the subject matter is clear from the article on his website and the music gives unity to a plot which at times could become rather disjointed. We can certainly understand why some refer to this as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’. Beginning with a lighthearted scene of international friendship, the tone soon plunges into tragedy when the King of Sicily, Leontes (a strong performance from Pete Gallagher), becomes consumed by jealousy, thinking that his wife, Ekatarina (Helen Power) has been unfaithful to him with his friend, the King of Bohemia, Polixines (Alastair Brookshaw). Her downfall is swift and apparently final. In the second act, we are transported to Bohemia amongst the simple sheep-raising country folk, with plenty of banter and playfulness (we loved the antics of ‘Rob’ and the sheep-shearing festivities) to follow the fate of Leontes’ daughter Perdita (the luminous Abigail Matthews), abandoned as a baby, and the inevitable discovery of her true identity and the resolution which follows.
One advantage of the small space is that the singers can be unmiked. Accompanied by a small band, the impressively strong ensemble more than did justice to Goodall’s music. We can’t help wondering if one of the reasons why Goodall has not found the fame he deserves is the lack of information on his website or anywhere else. Goodall himself mentions ‘The Same Sun Shines’ as the key to the piece, expressing the importance of individual lives, whatever their station in life, and for us this was one of the most powerful moments in the piece. As for the others, without a list of song titles, we would have to say that we liked the one about the sheep-shearing, and the recurring motif with the phrase ‘Love is what we are’. We’ll just have to buy the album, once we’ve worked out how to do that! Although not a sung-through musical, there is a sense of momentum and power in the music, particularly the use of the chorus and the intricate harmonies. The emotional threads are woven together beautifully at the end, making for a moving and effective final tableau which might have seemed a bit over the top in a non-musical setting. In short, Goodall has given the musical form a new sense of purpose, as he himself says “It is an unashamedly emotional story with equally emotional and passionate music”.
At the performance we attended there were notices reminding audiences that the show was a preview. We don’t know why, but all we can say is that if they were expecting teething problems, they never materialised.