It feels like a farce as it plays out. Yet, it is described as “a raucous family drama about the cost of living the life of our dreams”. Bizarre and incomprehensible things happen to the characters and their domain, but mainly they are not played for laughs. The acting style, for the most part, tends to realism, even though the situation is not realistic. There is such earnestness about the acting that the laughs are few and restrained, and it is difficult to be absorbed in the narrative.
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) is 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. The cast of 16 is exceptional and, with only one slight reservation, superbly and convincingly portrays the Duncton Wood moles.
What makes the musical stand-out is it unashamed gaiety, and I use that word in its modern sense. This is, as Nicholas De Jongh said when the piece premiered, “the first truly gay musical to be written and composed by Englishmen” to reach the West End. It is also essentially youthful, and quite uncompromising in dealing head on with the vagaries and traps of young adulthood: sex, drugs (use and sale), pop music, alcohol, predatory conduct, prostitution, love, survival, sexuality and, most compellingly, the family you create separate from the family into which you are born.
Regan’s sure and steady direction brings the piece to life with charm and warmth. From the moment the three siblings rescue three new-born kittens from drowning right through to the exploration of the burnt-out barn and the discovery of the stranger’s gift, the story unfolds from the viewpoint of a youngster. As the central siblings, Cathy, Nan and Charles, Grace Osborn, Imelda Warren-Green and Alex James Ellison are each splendidly natural, full of charm, and the banter and bickering to and fro of growing up.