The first in a series of three Howard Goodall revivals, this musical by the classical composer is so traditional that it feels almost refreshing. It loosely adapts A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a song-heavy, plot-light love poem to rural England. Book author and lyricist Charles Hart has shifted Shakespeare’s setting from a very English Athens to an even more English Somerset village, setting Goodall’s cycle of songs in the midst of a golden Edwardian summer.
Goodall’s hefty CV includes having composed the themes for Mr Bean, Blackadder, and Red Dwarf, TV documentaries and choral works that echo through cathedrals and Classic FM schedules alike. His style isn’t traditional musical theatre, then – it’s part of a very English tradition untouched by Hollywood, Broadway, or a century of pop music. Instead, its distinctive texture has a mixture of Edwardian lightness, folk song sincerity and choral intensity. The interludes of choral polyphony are particularly lovely, and the air seems to shimmer like trembling reeds as woodland fairy queen Sylvia is laid to rest to her female attendants’ perfectly blended voices. Elsewhere, repeated simple phrases create swarming texture that’s vibrant and lively, but, in the case of the “many herbs, Jack” refrain of “Love in Idleness”, can dull to meaninglessness.
The musical was originally commissioned for the National Youth Music Theatre, where it’s been revived several times since its 2001 premiere. But despite some rather skimpily clad forest damsels, its still skimpier plot doesn’t quite make the case for itself as an adult proposition. It’s more of an atmosphere piece, but Paul Clarkson as director has made a series of odd choices that drown out its soft charm. The horseshoe staging puts straggling lines of seats round the space’s edges, meaning that the cast thunder behind and through the audience without ever exploiting the potential for sung-through surround sound the staging could offer. He’s also encouraged his actors into a mannered, giggling style of acting that loses the potential for rural naturalness still further – instead, their love affairs are arch and irritating. Alastair Hill as Alexander Hill has a physical fluidity that make his bespectacled, clownish tomfoolery exciting to watch, but its hard to feel as intrigued by the stiffer clockwork progress of these romantic tiffs.
Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals are a group of villagers schooled by the vicar – the conventional equation of regional accents with simplicity is heightened until this band of local shopkeepers are reduced to stumbling, farting toddlers who raise their hands to beg explanations of the most obvious of plot points. As the explicating vicar explains, their play is the story of St George and the dragon which, after failing to be ready in time for St George’s Day, is set to enliven the St John’s Eve celebrations. The tone is relentlessly, Englishly jolly – although the bunting and St George’s flags don’t come out until the last ten minutes, their appearance is about as surprising as rain at a summer fete.
Although the lovers and mechanicals both dramatically lose their way, this production’s fleet-footed forest folk know what they’re about. Daisy Tonge as Sylvia leads her faerie coterie with wild grace, and Helen Rymer’s choreography comes into its own in their swooning, sensual dances.
Still, this sprinkling of magic isn’t enough to spark the dull mechanicals and mechanical lovers into life. Charles Hart has refined all the inconsistencies and mysteries out of his source material into a woodland trundle that lacks the wit or subtlty to distinguish it once and for all from the villager’s childish pageant. With a muddy design that fails to enchant, this is a doughty musical parade through some very familiar ground.