The Clockmaker’s Daughter continues at the Landor Theatre, London until 4 July.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
The fairytale, we are told in the programme for The Clockmaker’s Daughter, is one of the oldest forms of fiction, stretching back to a time, before books, when stories were spoken aloud and passed down from generation to generation.
Yet, even in an age when young theatregoers expect greater sophistication, we are constantly getting new ones. Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine threw the baker and his barren wife into the long-established mix for Into the Woods in the 1980s. Down at the Union Theatre in Southwark we are currently heading into the woods again, Duncton Wood, for a very adult fable about moles.
And at the Landor, the Clapham pub home of so many past musical treats lovingly put together by house director Robert McWhir, we’re in mythical Spindlewood for an Irish fantasy, a new musical jointly penned by Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn.
What a beauty it is, their folk opera. A lonely clockmaker creates a clockwork daughter who freezes into a statue if she’s not wound up and vainly tries to keep this lovely creation for himself.
Instead, she gets to know the simple folk of Spindlewood, saves the day for a weeping bride-to-be with dressmaking skills acquired from goodness knows where, falls in love with poor Will who has no idea what he’s getting himself into, lands a job ‘in the city’ which her selfish creator won’t let her take, and…
But I must say no more. It’s not fair to tell you why the villagers’ love for her turns to hatred because it’s not like Carousel or Phantom where everyone knows the story. This is thrilling, beautiful new theatre. You must go and discover for yourselves how all the twists and turns pan out. Accessory alert: take at least two hankies…
Suffice to say that Webborn, who also acts as musical director/pianist, and Finn can feel very proud of themselves and their ‘baby’, only a few days old and sure to get even bouncier. So, too, David Shields who has assembled a remarkable in-period set, with all manner of clocks that light up, and clever back-projections, the most ambitious I have seen at the Landor.
Credit choreographer Robbie O’Reilly on working wonders with deploying a massive cast of 20 who are often all onstage at the same time, the songs are charming with ‘Where You’ll Be’, ‘A Story of My Own’ and ‘If You Could See My Heart’ the stand-outs, the ensemble work lively and colourful, and the performances of the two principals, lovebirds Jennifer Harding and Alan McHale, will jerk a few tears from even the hardest of hearts.
The very likeable Canadian actress Harding carries off the long, tricky title role with great warmth and no little humour, while McHale’s Will is superbly sung and acted. I look forward to seeing this Mountview graduate again.
Alyssa Martyn and Alex Spinney make a handsome bride and groom, Lawrence Carmichael acts the unsympathetic role of the possessive clockmaker well enough (but misses the odd note) and Max Abraham, just finishing at Guildford’s Performance Preparation Academy, makes the most of his chances as Sam.
The one jarring note is Jo Wickham’s wicked dressmaker Ma Riley, with gestures, facial expressions and volume overdone for the small space. It’s not panto. When she tones that down and the authors trim five minutes from the dialogue, a fine evening could become a great one.
It must have been a joy for Webborn’s three backing musicians, Lauren Forder (violin), Doug Grannell (bass) and Alessandro Lombardo (percussion), to have these gorgeous pieces to play. Bravo to them and a team effort that shines right down to the smallest part.