REVIEW: Duncton Wood, Union Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Duncton Wood a new musical is playing at the Union Theatre in London
Duncton Wood. Photo: Darren Bell

Duncton Wood
Union Theatre
30 May 2015
4 Stars

When it was first announced that there was to be a musical version of Duncton Wood, fear gripped my being. The wonderfully weird, and fantastical, 1980 William Horwood book about the lives, loves and battles of various moles living in tunnels, all but helpless as their long held traditions and Stone religion are decimated by the tyrannical Mandrake, their bloodthirsty leader, was much loved. But it was about moles. Moles who talked and fought and worshipped and healed and mated. It was a complex story about faith, love and power, which relied upon the imagination of the reader to overcome the most fantastical elements, so they could be taken seriously.

How would it be staged? In the style of Cats? Full Lycra outfits replete with fur trimming and big wigs? Or in the style of The Lion King? With humans as part-puppet or puppet operators? Or would there be full, furry animal costumes? How could you depict naked moles convincingly, (they wore no clothing in the books; they were not like the characters in Wind In The Willows) in a way which would not produce laughter?

The answer lies, as it turns out, and, as is so often the case, in thinking outside the square; inspired and inventive thinking. The Union space has been converted into a dark, forbidding place – with flashes of greenery and the dappled, general sense of a wood splendidly evoked by simple cloths and hanging material. The lighting is exceptional, creating darkness of the complete kind, as well as darkness of the more subtle kind. From the very out, there is a clear sense of “other” established, and as proceedings continue, the style of playing and presentation draws deeply on notions of druidic and pagan rituals.

No attempt is made to disguise the humanity of the actors; rather, the sense of the mole characters is created, evoked and sustained by imaginative choreography, stylised movement and specific, sensual touches – the sight of two moles sniffing each other, for romantic or investigative intent, is wholly convincing. The eclectic costuming adds to the overall effect. Quite quickly, the audience is transported to the dangerous and unfamiliar territory of the Duncton Wood moles and, not once the night I attended, did anyone laugh at anything for the wrong reasons. Tension is taut throughout and silence grips the auditorium as this intriguing, other-worldly tale is told.

This is Michael Strassen’s richly detailed, splendidly cast, and lovingly staged premiere production of Duncton Wood (music and lyrics from Mark Carroll, book by James Peries, adapted from Horwood’s book) now playing at the Union Theatre. Strassen has first rate support from his entire creative team and each produce excellent work in the fulfilment of Strassen’s vision: Josh Sood as Musical Director, Jean Gray as Designer, Tim Deiling as Lighting Designer, Orchestrations from Michael England and Vocal Arrangements by David Steadman. Everyone here does exemplary work.

Carroll’s music and lyrics are powerful and feel an essential part of the experience. This is not a case of a story to which music has been affixed. Rather, the music is integral, and it emphasises and underlines the characters and events. There are some beautiful ballads and some particularly powerful anthems sung with vitality and verve by the entire cast. Pastoral and hypnotic, the score is both gentle and surprising; together with the very earthy and succinct lyrics, the whole effect is rustic, heathen and ethereal. Sood has provided assured guidance and so the texture and glory of the harmonies and melodies shines through. His able band delivers finely tuned support.

The cast of 16 is exceptional and, with only one slight reservation, superbly and convincingly portrays the Duncton Wood moles. There are some outstanding turns.

Oli Reynolds (Cairn) and James Sinclair (Stonecrop) are exceptional as the mole brothers who, like normal brothers, fight and argue, but are fiercely devoted and protective of each other. The sense of fraternal companionship is remarkable. Reynolds’ Cairn is the character that works best of all in the cast and his gentle romance with Amelia-Rose Morgan’s Rebecca is touchingly and sensitively portrayed. Their sweet duets, I Wonder and Moonshine, are expertly judged, beautifully sung, making the tragedy which overwhelms them all the more affecting.

Morgan’s Rebecca is a complex character: daughter of a tyrant, instinctively traditional, open to love, viciously treated by her father, an instinctive and willing healer, a carnal and romantic partner. Morgan weaves each characteristic into a cohesive whole. Equally, Josh Little presents the complexities of Bracken, the hero of the piece in many ways, cleanly and with a brutal rawness. Little’s performance is very committed, very physical, but he also is unafraid to show Bracken’s insecurities, internal anguish and moral conviction. Little’s voice is clean and rich, and although his voice sits higher than might be best for some of the lower parts of the score, he is a joy to watch and listen to: Too Much Time, his important solo in Act One, is a real highpoint, as is his duet with Morgan’s Rebecca in Act Two, Maybe I’m Wrong.

Trevor Jones does excellent work in the dual roles of Hulver and Boswell. He is remarkably adept at separating the characters; when he appears as Boswell, he is all but unrecognisable, despite the lack of any make-up or accoutrements to assist. He simply acts very well – and he has a smooth baritone and excellent diction. Anthony Cable’s menacing Mandrake is convincing and he, too, has an excellent voice.

The warm, very maternal, healer, Rose, is played with considerable finesse and perfect understatement by Anna Stolli. In a very unassuming way, she makes the magical aspects of the plot work entirely convincingly (when they could so easily be laughable). Stolli has a sweet and beguiling voice too, and she is instrumental to the most touching moment of the evening.

There is good, solid work from Robert Dalton (Burhead), Rachel Flynn (Caron), Sinead O’Callaghan (Rue) and amongst the committed, extremely talented ensemble there is particularly good work from Nadia Eide, Myles Hart and Hugo Joss Catton.

The chief villain of the piece is not the malevolent Mandrake. That honour goes to Rune, the silky, snide, conniving manipulator who values his own power and interests over everything else, including the lives of his fellow moles. Thomas Thoroe looks striking as Rune and adopts a perfect Machiavellian persona; he has no trouble with the vocal demands, his diction and warm voice rings grandly, appropriately, in the space. But his delivery of the dialogue is slightly too camp to be as effective and unnerving as it should be.

The one reservation about the work lies in the way the text deals with the underlying issues the moles are facing. There is no doubt that there could have been clearer exposition and explanation about the different mole tribes, the notion of the Stone religion, and the ascendency of Mandrake and what that meant for tradition and religion in Duncton Wood. The concepts are so foreign that even an understanding of the novel does not necessarily assist. That said, if one concentrates properly and pays attention to lyrics and dialogue, the world Strassen has created slowly coalesces into comprehension.

This is a complex, intricate and accomplished work. Strassen has assembled a cracking cast, and with a remarkable creative team, and scarce resources, has created a completely believable, magical and slightly terrifying world. His Duncton Wood is quite beautiful, effulgent and seductive.

This is one of the best productions of a new musical the Union has seen in recent years.

Duncton Wood runs at the Union Theatre until 20th June 2015

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