“If you run out of words, just burst into song”
The Finborough Theatre in West London has had an excellent record in reviving British musicals as part of their “Celebrating British Music Theatre” series and marking the 60th anniversary of the death of composer Ivor Novello is Perchance to Dream, sliding into the Sunday/Monday slot there for the month of September. It is the first professional London production for 25 years of this show devised, written and composed by Novello himself, the only show for which he wrote the lyrics.
It is an unashamedly romantic musical, centring on the country pile Huntersmoon and the tangled love affairs of its residents as we glide from the Regency era, through Victorian times and to WWII as the ghosts of the past continue to haunt future generations. But it is the glorious music that commands the attention as Novello’s score incorporate such classics as ‘Love Is My Reason’, ‘A Woman’s Heart’ and ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’: classic songwriting close to its best.
What really works in this musical is the way in which the music is integrated into the piece: the characters don’t just burst into song for no reason but rather it is part of the play. Whether the entertainment provided at a social gathering – ‘A Lady Went To Market Fair’ making a grand party piece, the preferred method of communicating when nervous for a drama queen or a choir singing songs written by one of the lead characters, it all flows naturally. It is such a simple conceit but one that is rarely seen these days and it is extremely effective in Max Pappenheim’s uncluttered production.
There’s a warm silliness that pervades the opening Regency sequence, and to some extent the Victorian, with its array of upper class twits, handsome ruffians and barmy ladies. Played straight with no attempt at post-modern irony, the cast rightly allow Novello’s script to speak for itself and it is really quite sufficiently witty: the Lady Bracknellisms of Annabel Leventon’s perfectly withering Lady Charlotte are hilarious and the battiness of the melodramatic Ernestine is well-played by Natalie Langston are two standouts.
But it is the love triangle that echoes through time. James Russell’s raffish Sir Graham, notorious womaniser by day and dastardly French highwayman by night, has the affections of the lovely Lydia, a passionate performance from Kelly Price, but as his cousin Melinda arrives for a birthday party, his head is truly turned by her youth and sweetness, as captured by Claire Redcliffe. His lifestyle means that there is no happy ending here and a generation later, the same triangle reoccurs as the actors play another trio of characters who play out a similar tale of a man caught between two loves with consequent broken hearts and tragic endings.
Not everything works perfectly: the ballet and singing sequence towards the end of the first half is a little weak and outstays its welcome and I found the dance in general to be an unnecessary addition. And being a little picky, I couldn’t help but feel the balance was slightly off with the two lead women, a little too much attention being paid to the woman who was left rather than the woman he was ‘meant; to be with: maybe it was just the fact that I couldn’t see how anyone could leave the gorgeous Kelly Price! In any case, it meant she got better, and more songs that the official heroine.
And what songs as accompanied by Pappenheim on the piano, stepping in for the indisposed MD Ross Leadbeater. None are better than the timeless beauty of ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’, sung here with show-stopping beauty by Kelly Price’s gorgeous soprano and Natalie Langston’s rich contralto. I’d pay to see the show again just to see that song but the short run is now sold out. Keep an eye on the website for any returns though as it will be well worth the effort for the Finborough have unearthed quite the little gem here: hugely witty, extremely tuneful and full of heart.