Well, I don’t know what I was expecting – but this wasn’t it! In retrospect, I think I was expecting a fairly “Dickensian” type play about a long lost, golden haired orphan suffering all sorts of misery until, 10 minutes before the final curtain, being saved from the orphanage by his hitherto unrecognised parents. What I got was a dark, brooding “18th century” story of infanticide, betrayal, child slavery, corruption, greed and lust – with a bit of kiddy-fiddling thrown in for good measure. Everything you wanted for Christmas - and all set to the music of Handel, ye gods.
Its difficult to write a balanced review of something which has left one gasping for breath with its sweep – rather like I would have about the National’s “His Dark Materials” a couple of years back – another wonderful NT production based on a book for young adults. I can only say that authors are obviously producing far, far better stuff for teenagers these days than anything I ever got. The one failing of the production is really the fault of the original story in that the second act is somewhat over-reliant on “lucky co-incidences” but then I suppose that Georgian literature of the time is very similar.
Among an incredibly strong cast, Abby Ford gave such a credible portrayal of the young Alexander Ashbrook that, for most of the first act, I was sure I was watching a 15 year old boy. William Scott-Mason was totally convincing as a brutish Sir William. Justine Mitchell took a while to get into her stride but, in the second half as her character reaches womanhood, gave a very touching performance. Perhaps it’s a mark of Tim McMullan’s skill that I failed to recognise him in Act 2 as the same character as in Act 1 – he changed both physically and vocally from a dark, swaggering, sweaty monster to a slightly effeminate and mincing one – both equally dangerous in their way. There was perhaps slightly too much of Connie Booth about Ruth Gemmell’s physical appearance of Mrs Lynch for comfort, but she made a rip-roaring vilanness when the text got darker – just the type of classic, doublecrossing sidekick that a villan should watch his back around. Nicholas Tizzard was very effective as a slightly grumpy Handel – just how I always imagined Handel would have been in real life – and his last lines, effectively drawing a knife of reality through the butter of sentimentality in the closing scene were delivered with devastating comic timing.
Some great staging – I particularly liked the dramatic“underwater” scene at the height of Act 2 – and found myself wondering why the particular effect had never been used in “Twelfth Night” or “The Tempest”. It was – quite frankly – smashing. I will pass comment (please feel free to roll your eyes here) that the flowers used to decorate the Ashbrook’s ball were completely wrong for the period. It would have been slightly more convincing had the harpsichord used in the Ashbrook’s drawing room not been the same one as that in the children’s playhouse, nor had it reappeared in the drawing room after being smashed in the playhouse, or had Lady Ashbrook appeared in just the one costume all the way through. But, nitpicking aside. This was great. It was intelligent enough to make me think, funny enough to make me laugh, moving enough to make the woman in the next seat cry, and it even made Clive announce that he wanted to read the book. And if there’s higher praise than that, I don’t know what it is.