The last two adaptations of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale (Propeller and the Unicorn’s recent version) have left me rather distraught with their takes on this problem play, and Howard Goodall similarly had me reaching for the tissues with his Love Story and last year’s revival of The Hired Man at the Landor Theatre. So it’s safe to say that there was a certain degree of expectation as I returned to the Clapham North pub theatre to see the final preview of Goodall’s latest project, A Winter’s Tale – a musical inspired by Shakespeare’s play with a book by Nick Stimson.
The first act is just glorious. This Sicilia is a dark, military world and this is obvious from the off with a magnificent multi-layered opener of goose-pimpling intensity which sets the scene perfectly. Pete Gallagher’s Leontes and Alastair Brookshaw’s visiting Polixines make a fine pair of kings, all good-natured joshing until Helen Power’s Ekaterina enters the scene to persuade Polixines to extend his visit whereupon the red mist of vicious jealousy descends on Leontes with devastating consequences for all concerned. Goodall’s swirling melodies and impassioned lyrics are ideally suited to this emotional whirlpool and all three leads excel, backed up by a large but impressive ensemble who bear witness to the tragic consequences of Leontes’ blinkered viewpoint.
I found the second act a little more difficult though. The shift to the pastoral scenes of Bohemia, Polixines’ kingdom, is a challenge that every production of The Winter’s Tale has to face and this one lost something for me in the journey there (although not in Martin Thomas’ clever design which achieves a lot with great subtlety). Part of it comes from Stimson’s book which does little to initially establish Perdita and Florizel but it was also partly down to Goodall’s music taking a strange turn to the bland which meant Abigail Matthews and Fra Fee were largely fighting a losing battle in making me care about their relationship. Matters are not helped by retaining the character of Autolycus, here renamed Rob and played by a roguish Ciaran Joyce, who serves mainly as comic relief in delivering some of Goodall’s more whimsical numbers including an ode to lamb (as opposed to pasta…), time that could be spent developing the more central characters.
There are a handful of strong tunes here though too, a lovely female duet and the stirring number led by Perdita as she pleads to Polixines to be reasonable makes the Bohemian scenes better as the show progresses. And fortunately the play returns to Sicilia before the end, making for a stronger finale of reunions, reconciliations and repentance to the more persuasive tune of this melancholy court. Helena Blackman shows off an impressive maturity as Paulina, her presence a steadying anchor for all around her even in the midst of another oddly comic song, and the production draws together its strands most effectively. Stimson’s recutting of the dynamic at the end is an interesting choice and one that director Andrew Keates could probably afford to push a little further in the final image of the show to sound a clearer emotional note.
Still, the first half is as good a piece of musical theatre as you will see this year and already has me impatient for some kind of cast recording (I might just have to revisit to hear the gorgeous music again). The strength of the performances from the cast, from the bands and from the creative ensures an enthusiastic sweep through the material which never drags, and I can well imagine future life for this British musical as it is continued to be further developed. I may not have cried but I certainly applauded.