Sunday, 7 June 2015

Theatre review: Duncton Wood

There's a number of new British musicals popping up on the fringe at the moment, and first for me is what will hopefully be the oddest offering, an adaptation of William Horwood's first novel Duncton Wood, about violent gangs of moles fighting over territory in and around the titular wood. I wouldn't want to try and be more specific than that about the story, as exactly what's going on is pretty much impossible to follow. Certainly the central couple are Bracken (Josh Little) and Rebecca (Amelia-Rose Morgan,) who don't actually meet until quite late in the show and both shag other people (/moles) but they do smell each other's scent around the wood often and are sure they're destined to be together. But Rebecca's father Mandrake (Anthony Cable) is the tyrannical leader of the mole gang. I think they're actually the Duncton Moles, which technically means Bracken is on their side, but I think it's the fact that he worships a magic stone that looks like a ball of string that makes him unpopular with Mandrake.

Definitely not Duncton Moles are brothers Cairn (Oli Reynolds) and Stonecrop (James Sinclair,) which is why when Rebecca fucks Cairn her father is angry about it, so he murders Cairn and batters their litter of pups to death. I think maybe these weren't children's books.

Anyway, Mandrake doesn't seem to be the actual bad guy - that would be Rune (Thomas Thoroe,) who either wants to replace Mandrake as leader, or just enjoys being a dick to everybody. It's not really clear, but then what is? From the opening scene, where Bracken betrays either his father or his religious mentor Hulver (Trevor Jones) or neither or both, the only thing that becomes obvious is that not worrying too much about who anyone is or what's going on is the best plan for watching this. By the interval I thought that maybe if you'd read the book it would make more sense, although by the end I wasn't even sure if Horwood would be able to follow what's going on.

It's a shame because there's a lot that's good here, and not just the fact that Little, Reynolds and the rest of the male cast wander around without shirts on; Mark Carroll (music and lyrics) and James Peries (book) might have fudged the storytelling but the show's tuneful with a couple of the songs ("I Wonder" and "Hulver's Dream") standing out. And the cast throw themselves into things, with Jones and Cable offering powerful experienced voices, Morgan and Reynolds having some strong moments and Little's voice also building up to something powerful, even if his acting doesn't always match it.

But trying to simplify a fantasy novel into a musical can lead to things being unintentionally funny, and Michael Strassen's typically po-faced production doesn't help with this. I managed to keep a straight face but when Anna Stolli's Rose The Healer, who's spent the show teaching Rebecca about medicinal herbs, turns out to have had magical powers of resurrection all along, I could see one man in the front row couldn't hold his giggles in any longer.

Protect us O ball of string

In between battling the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, Jean Gray has come up with designs that for the most part work - turning actors into aggressive moles can't have been the easiest request a designer's ever had - but sometimes also tip over into the unintentionally comic (the male moles all wear black finger and toenail polish, giving them a bit of a goth look, and they fight with claws that look suspiciously like toy Freddie Krueger gloves.)

And don't ask me why, after using them to nice effect in one scene, ropes are left crossing the stage for the actors to trip over throughout the second act. The show ends at what seems an almost arbitrary point - the man next to me said as he got up "You know when she said 'I don't understand?' I know how she felt." A lot of nice work going into the production but the script really needed a lot more work if anyone is expected to follow what's going on.

Duncton Wood by Mark Carroll and James Peries, based on the novel by William Horwood, is booking until the 20th of June at the Union Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes including interval.

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