Perchance to Dream, like most of Ivor Novello’s musicals, was something of an anachronism in its own time, celebrating a fairytale kind of Englishness (even though Novello himself was Welsh). Being immensely popular with audiences in the aftermath of World War II in 1945, it ran for 1,022 performances starring the non-singing Novello himself as the lead, but despite the evergreen appeal of its most famous song ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’, Novello has been less than fashionable for years.
Spanning three generations in Huntersmoon, a crumbling ancestral manse filled with “Old Masters and young mistresses”, the tale begins during the Regency era in 1818, moving 25 years ahead into the Victorian period, and finally jumps a century forward to 1943, when air raid sirens are wailing but the ghosts that haunt the house are laid to rest. Rather than adhering to happy-ever-after conventions usually found in novelette-ish plots, Novello offers something more bittersweet, the lashings of romanticism tinged with the shadow of death – one can detect shades of a less coarse The Beggar’s Opera, with echoes of the unquiet sleepers found in Wuthering Heights.
Director Max Pappenheim (who also played the piano at the performance I attended) resists the temptation to put an ironic spin on the proceedings, allowing Novello’s enchanting music and witty libretto to work its own magic, delivered by a very winning ensemble. Novello’s integration of the music and book is a delight, with songs arising from choir practice, an impromptu concert around the fire, and the joy of a wedding day. The only exception is a rather gratuitous ballet celebrating the seasons.
It’s amusing to see James Russell and Claire Redcliffe from the Finborough’s Christmas production of J.M. Barrie’s Quality Street reunited as another pair of Regency lovers: Russell (playing another Valentine in the Victorian act) lacks finesse as an actor, but he cuts a dashing figure as Regency buck and closet highwayman Sir Graham Rodney. Redcliffe’s delicate physique suits wide-eyed ingÃ©nue Melinda perfectly, turning her daintiness to a very different advantage as ‘glo-glo’ dancing home-wrecker Melanie. It’s hard to tell whether we’re supposed to be on her side just because fate has ordained that she and Valentine are meant to be together as my sympathies remained firmly with his wife. As the obligatory battleaxe, Annabel Leventon’s caustic Aunt Chatty, whom we see mellow over the years, relishes most of the best lines and could hold her own against many a grande dame with her flawless delivery.
Along with a leading man who doesn’t sing, the piece is also unusual in having two heroines. The more interesting of the two is Lydia Lyddington, a seasoned lady of the theatre who finds giving up her lover more difficult than anticipated and whose daughter, Veronica, makes the seemingly perfect wife for composer Valentine (both played by Kelly Price). Price’s renditions of ‘Love Is My Reason, ‘A Woman’s Heart’ and particularly ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs’ (with Natalie Langston) are things of beauty. While she might lose the hero, getting to break the audience’s hearts and having the best songs seems ample compensation.
Despite appearing in the Finborough’s Sunday and Monday window for a modest eight performances, Pappenheim’s production would be deserving of the main slot. If one can leave all cynicism in the bar, this is a delicious wallow in nostalgia, love and loss, the kind that so captivated post-war audiences.