Bolton, Saturday night. A packed theatre – average age 55+ – expecting to be entertained by this musical adaptation of Dodie Smith’s 1948 novel ‘I Capture the Castle’. Those who have read the book will be looking forward to following the romantic shenanigans of the delightful young narrator and her eccentric and impoverished family. Those who haven’t will have been drawn in by the Octagon’s publicity announcing it to be a play about ‘First love, unrequited love, married love’. We all know what kind of theatrical fare we’re about to be served, and that’s all fine. What we don’t know is whether it will satisfy.
It is clear that this project (from director Brigid Larmour, writer/lyricist Teresa Howard and composer Steven Edis) derives from a genuine love of the novel, and a desire to do it justice: to re-create the world of the vivid array of Dodie Smith’s characters and, centrally, to enthral us in the coming-of-age of the narrator/central character, Cassandra. The casting of Lowri Izzard here is perfect. From the very first moment, she captures the essence of hopefulness, Englishness and charm that made the novel such a success – and she becomes the glue that holds the whole production together. Cassandra is the play’s most complex character (arguably its only complex character) and she takes us on quite a journey in a couple of hours; from innocent observations of her family (‘capturing’ them in her diary), through girlish excitement at the arrival of two eligible American men and the realisation of the opportunities they present, to conflicts and confrontations, and, finally a greater emotional maturity. Izzard’s performance is nuanced and believable – we witness Cassandra growing up before our eyes – and her singing is flawless.
All of which is fortunate, because what happens around her is much more variable and UN-nuanced. The male characters in particular are two-dimensional and while there are some lively moments, and much ‘drama’ in the plot-line, there is also a strange lacklustre feel to the piece. Some comic moments elicit a few laughs but nothing sustained. Nor do the song-and-dance elements lift the tone very much. The opportunity presented by musical theatre is, at the very least, to enhance the emotion and/or the ‘fun’ of the piece. And there are moments where both are, indeed, achieved: ‘They’re only men’ is a good stand-alone song, and thoroughly enjoyable. And Cassandra’s ‘Imagining’ song (‘I’ll imagine that he loves me’) is sensitively understated and genuinely touching. But many of the other songs seem like ‘bolt-ons’ and some of the 1930s dance routines come across as clumsy scene-setters which feel either uncomfortable or just plain silly. To see the morose father – who has spent the entire first half stomping around in a constant and highly exaggerated grump – suddenly kicking his leg up delicately behind him in a lively little 1930s Charleston number seems …. well, incongruous, to say the least. And the result is the opposite of what is intended – we are distanced from the characters rather than engaged with them.
That said, the second half is significantly better than the first. The silly songs are dropped and the music now feels more organically connected to the characters and their feelings. And after the rather clunky choreography in the first half, there is some quite beautifully controlled and evocative physical theatre (to convey the bustle of London), as well as a sensitive use of tableau and movement during Cassandra’s aforementioned ‘Imagining’. The latter conveys a vivid visual map of the shifting emotional locations of each of the characters and is, actually, the highlight of the piece for me – the moment where I am aware of poignancy.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t last very long. And certainly not long enough to dispel the sense that, overall, this production doesn’t quite deliver the emotional punch it aspires to.
It is no simple task to revive a story set in the 1930s about a very 1930s rural English family and make it compelling. There are, of course, timeless themes (hope, dreams, family, love, money, growing up) and it is a worthy ambition to address them. Nevertheless, the context here is so very particular that it needs a very strong production to make the themes salient and to give the whole thing some relevance to urban viewers in 2017. Maybe this, in itself, wouldn’t matter to an ageing audience on a Saturday night in Bolton. However, the main elements of this production – the characterisation, staging and music – just don’t gel sufficiently to make for memorable entertainment either. In the end, then, ‘I Capture the Castle’ proves to be a rather insubstantial repast.