Like the Shakespeare play on which it is based, Howard Goodall and Nick Stimson’s musical, A Winter’s Tale – originally commissioned by the Sage, Gateshead and now receiving its professional world premiere at the Landor Theatre – is very much a work of two halves, though together they add up to a satisfying and heart-warming whole.
The first half of director Andrew Keates’ production takes place in a stylish Czarist Russian setting, all greatcoats and velvet gowns. Almost as soon as we have established the regal bromance between Sicilian King Leontes and his guest and childhood friend, King Polixenes of Bohemia, the host falls into paranoia and madness, becoming convinced that his queen Ekatarina is an adulteress. Goodall’s music captures this dark spiral, and while Pete Gallagher is convincingly tortured as the king who pays the ultimate price for his jealousy (and Helen Power is properly heart-wrenching as his wronged wife), the unremitting bleakness can feel overwrought at times.
The second half is very different in tone and a delight from start to finish. The rural idyll of Bohemia and its down to earth shepherd folk are broadly played for laughs – Ciaran Joyce, as the travelling bard, Rob, steals the show with his sly turn as a wily minstrel (his hilarious Ode to Sheep is one of the highlights), and he sparks nicely off Perdita’s dim-witted but likeable brother, Zeki (Gareth James Healey). But despite the comic tone, the production is at pains to stress that these peasants are no less dignified than their rulers (and are, in fact, far better behaved). Perdita’s defiant assertion of equality, The Same Sun Shines, manages to be truly rousing as her countrymen gather to support her, though the fact that this foundling ‘peasant’ girl speaks with an inexplicable cut glass accent that marks her out so clearly from her peers does somewhat undermine this idea, implying nobility owes more to nature than nurture, however well-meaning and loving the latter.
The large cast is universally strong, performing with a pleasing energy and verve, whether stomping around in military uniformity in Sicilia or frolicking in the Bohemian hills. As the young lovers, Abigail Matthews and Fra Fee are charming and sweet, while Alastair Brookshaw brings a wounded gravitas to his role, as a man whose bitterness at his friend’s betrayal leads him to a similar harshness in later life. Another stand-out performance is that of Helena Blackman as Paulina, a steely presence who establishes herself as Leontes’ conscience, reminding him of the cost of his loss even as she plots to heal it.
Keates makes excellent use of the compact Landor stage – it’s a theatre that is fast establishing a fine reputation for marshalling relatively large casts in a very small space – although the design of Martin Thomas’ set leads to some issue with sightlines, with much of the finale annoyingly obscured for those sitting in the side seats. This aside, Goodall and Stimpson have created an incredibly entertaining take on an established tale, and this production makes the perfect way to warm up a winter evening.