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After Saturday’s adult fairy tale, Sunday’s new British musical was a fantasy in moledom! I’ve never read William Horwood’s novel of the same name (or the five sequels!) so I came to this musical adaptation cold. It’s set in communities of moles, who have a society which includes a king, some sort of religion based around a stone, a healer and rival factions.

The story begins as King (I think) Mandrake casts out his daughter Rebecca for consorting with someone from another group of moles (there are pasture moles, stone moles and Duncton moles, though I never really got to grip with these different sects). He’s even mean enough to kill her and her babies, though she is healed herself and adopts Bracken’s baby. Rune is the real baddie, who’s out to dispose of any opposition and usurp Mandrake. To be honest, the book by James Peries isn’t at all clear and I never really unravelled the story so there’s little point in me elaborating further.

Mark Carroll’s score fares better, with some nice tunes and choruses, though a little too much sung dialogue for my liking (particularly from Rune). There are moments when it becomes too pompous in a pop opera way, but there are also lovely moments like the duet Moonshine and the chorus Hulver’s Dream.

Whatever you think of the material, you can’t help but be impressed by Michael Strassen’s production. I wasn’t convinced at first by the configuration, with the audience on two sides of a square, bit it quickly made sense. Beautifully lit by Tim Deiling, with a very imaginative design by Jean Gray, the look is great and the movement by Strassen himself outstanding. There were some good vocals, particularly from Oli Reynolds as Cairn, Amelia-Rose Morgan as Rebecca and especially Josh Little as Bracken. The keyboard heavy 5-piece backstage band sounded good.

The second half is better than the first (and began to make sense before it lost me again!) and if the story were made clearer and the first half cut a bit, it would be a much better show. As it is, it’s worth a visit but not a rave.

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The audience is only 66% bigger than the cast, but it’s a full house. It’s performed on the set of the play which occupies the same theatre most of the week. Only 400 people will get to see it (including 2 extra performance!). It hasn’t been revived since it was first produced over 50 years ago. Its crying out for a major staging & if it got one could be the sort of hit Me & My Girl was second time around (though they might have to change the title!). It’s simply wonderful.

Ivor Novello’s musical comedy starts on the stage of Manchester Opera House as the run of a musical flop ends before it gets to London (actually, the show within a show – Ruritania – is rather good). Actress Gay Daventry has lost a fortune backing the show. With start-up funding from a rich(er) fellow actor she gives up the stage and sets up a school of acting in Folkstone, surrounding herself with veteran teachers of singing, acting and dance. She struggles to make a living despite the arrival of a rich student and sub-letting to some smugglers. Of course, it all ends happily – this is 1950’s musical theatre.

The show has some great tunes and it’s very funny. Stewart Nicholls production sparkles. I think they’ve taken some liberties with the book but it adds to the freshness rather than spoils the original. It’s cramped in this tiny space (with audience all round) but this somehow improves audience engagement and enhances intimacy more than it detracts from the spectacle.

But it’s the cast wot does it and boy what a cast. Sophie-Louise Dann gives one of the finest musical comedy performances I’ve ever seen; she sings beautifully and is a master at comedy. Helena Blackman continues to impress with a particular affinity & suitability for this period, as she showed in Noel & Gertie last year. There’s a quartet of veteran ladies – Doreen Hermitage, Eileen Page, Myra Sands & Elizabeth Seal – who almost steal the show with the second act opener ‘Teaching’, Josh Little is an excellent romantic lead and the ensemble sparkles. We even get a cameo from Frank Barrie.

It is a huge treat and it must have a life beyond here. Bring on the Novello revival!

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