Duncton Wood continues at the Union Theatre until 20 June.
Star rating: 3 stars ★ ★ ★
As novels ripe for adaptation into a musical go, a 1980 book about a community of moles living in the shadow of a standing stone doesn’t exactly seem the likeliest of sources. But West End performer Mark Carroll has taken William Horwood’s Duncton Wood and used it to craft a fitfully moving tale of mysticism and romance.
Wisely eschewing any literal attempts to turn the ensemble into moles, Jean Gray’s designs deck out the erstwhile rodents in combat pants, natural fibres and furs, resembling rather more a children’s TV idea of post-apocalyptic chic. Horwood’s imagined social structures and political intrigues translate well to the stage, with the old ways of a community who worshipped the local stone finding themselves oppressed by the tyrannical Mandrake and his henchmen, and forced to seek help from a neighbouring tribe.
Among this backdrop is a romance between Mandrake’s independently minded daughter Rebecca (Amelia-Rose Morgan) and the stone-worshipping mole Bracken (Josh Little). But no musical theatre romance is ever plain sailing, and it is ever thus here: Rebecca’s first mate, pasture mole Cairn (an endearing performance from Oli Reynolds) is murdered by Mandrake, as are her pups, and Bracken is wrongly accused of the crime.
But while the world-building is effective in places, with the fighting and dancing styles suggesting an aeons-old culture whose sense of ritual has been built up over centuries, at other times it fails due to an ineffective transition of the world from page to stage. Anthony Cable’s Mandrake is little better than a pantomime villain – a King Rat among moles, if you will – and his descent into madness feels disconnected from the rest of the story. His ambitious right-hand man Rune fares a little better, Thomas Thoroe’s schemer always on hand to deliver a curled lip, a snarl and a belting solo.
As the leads, Morgan is by far the stronger here. Her Rebecca is fierce and strong-willed, even when at her most broken. In contrast, Little’s Bracken is imperious when called up to deliver a ballad, his vocal strength shining through, but he is less effective in the character’s softer moments.
Carroll’s music, orchestrated by Michael England and performed under the musical direction of Josh Sood, is at its most powerful when allowing the full ensemble to participate, their tight choral work imbuing a sense of faith and culture that echoes Horwood’s original writing. And apart from a sequence of lyrics that sing the praises of ‘the longest night’ in a sequence set in midsummer – a time when the nights are at their shortest – the music cements the idea that this industrial railway arch populated by actors is actually a verdant forest populated by burrowing mammals.