Saturday 6th September 2014, matinée
When we heard that Howard Goodall and Charles Hart’s musical ‘The Dreaming’ was going to be put on at the Union Theatre we jumped at the chance to add to our growing collection of Goodall musicals, and to revisit a tiny venue with big ideas. The plot is based on Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, but Charles Hart’s book brings the action to Edwardian times, specifically 1913, which makes a good fit both musically, and adds weight to the story by evoking the sense of a golden summer lost forever on the eve of the First World War. The key characters never change it seems, with the aristocrats who need to learn a lesson from those who live more closely with nature being a timeless theme.
Designer Kingsley Hall has transformed the space very simply with the suggestion of a forest, making the floor the main feature of the space and allowing the twenty-strong cast plenty of flexibility, while director Paul Clarkson creatives an immersive experience, making maximum use of the off-stage spaces (characters often call to each other unseen, creating a real sense of remoteness), and the clever trick of getting the chorus to run behind the seats literally sends shivers up the spine, in a low tech but very effective form of 4D. Helen Rymer’s choreography completes the creative triangle with an ingenious use of the space, whether in high energy acrobatics, comedy from the amateur dramatics troupe, or in her inventive ways of creating a magical atmosphere, for example, the beautiful sequence where Sylvia, the Queen of the woodlanders, is lulled to sleep by her handmaidens using just a large square of floating material, and her ‘romance’ with an unlikely bedfellow is played out as a mysterious dream sequence.
Howard Goodall’s music has a warmth and humanity to it which makes it a constant pleasure to listen to, as well as an emotionally engaging experience. He focuses on harmony and hope, and even the saddest events are tinged with a sense of the greater picture and a sense that things can be better in the future. The music is well served by musical director David Griffiths, heading a band of just four, who create a myriad of tones and sounds, combining modern technology and acoustic instruments to great effect. Here Goodall is teamed with Charles Hart, with whom he wrote the wonderful Kissing Dance, and again they have created an engaging and witty piece. It is hard to pick out highlights because everything flows together so well, but we would have to mention the ‘Cuckoo song’, a great introduction for the villagers, ‘Jennifer’, an incredibly catchy and joyous outpouring of drug-induced love, ‘Night and Silence’, the dreamlike and yet slightly menacing lullaby for Sylvia, ‘Catch me if you can’, which plays quite literally with the extremes of ‘love me’ and ‘kill me’ in the mayhem of confused lovers and mischievous woodland creatures. Finally ‘The Dreaming’ sums up the action and brings a fantastic sense of resolution as each character first recounts their own experiences, and then concludes that it must all have been a dream. The conflicts are resolved and all is forgiven.
The massive cast deliver an ensemble performance which is impressive on all fronts – dancing, singing and acting, and really creates a world of fantasy and dreamlike action in the mysterious forest setting. We particularly enjoyed David Breeds as the unremittingly energetic and over-eager youngster Walter, willing even to play the rear end of a dragon to further his acting career. We had only very recently seen Richard Brindley in the Royal Academy of Music end of year shows, and here he shows off his singing voice and lightness of touch as the pleasant and enthusiastic Lord of the manor Julian. Michael Burgen has a nice sense of wonder as the star player of the villagers acting troupe about to experience a very different transformation, slightly bemused but quietly enjoying the experience. As Angel and Sylvia, the King and Queen of the woodlanders, Christopher Hancock and Daisy Tonge provide a strong focus for the whole piece, both with powerful vocals and movement. It’s never easy pretending to be a bad actor, but Alex Green does a great job, perfectly capturing that ‘rabbit in the headlights’ look of terror, and managing the business of dodgy props and timing to maximum comic effect. As Alexander, the runaway lover who is induced to fall in love with the ‘wrong’ person, Alistair Hill pulls out all the stops, and his rendition of the love song ‘Jennifer’ is a joy to watch, as he combines outlandishly pure vocals with a gloriously uninhibited interpretive dance. There is a delicious moment of anticipation as his rival David, played by Joshua Tonks, instantly falls in love with the same girl, and joins him in his hypnotic refrain. Their rivalry is beautifully played out and is one of the highlights of the afternoon.
It seems churlish to complain, but we would have to say that there were some issues with diction which meant that some of the words were lost, a shame given our admiration for Charles Hart’s lyrics! But overall this is an impressive production of a musical which deserves a much wider audience (glad as we were to experience it on such an intimate scale), and this is a worthy (and long overdue) professional premier.
PS – Howard, if you’re reading this, please can we have a cast recording!