I saw a new musical yesterday. Yes, that’s an event, new musicals don’t come around very often these days, particularly outside of London. The Go-Between, at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. It’s based, of course, on the novel by L.P. Hartley and, like the novel, it opens with that line. And then it goes to some places you really don’t expect.
Not particularly in terms of content, actually. As far as I can remember (it’s a decade and a half at least since I read the novel), the musical makes no major changes to the source material’s plot. What’s interesting, here, is the way David Wood (book and lyrics) and Richard Taylor (music and lyrics) handle the transition from speech to singing. I’ve never seen a musical use music quite the way this one does.
The plot is familiar from the novel and the (excellent) film – a middle-class schoolboy, Leo, who is spending the summer as the guest of an upper-class schoolfriend and his family at their country estate becomes the means via which his friend’s older sister Marian sends messages to the tenant farmer who is her secret lover. When the affair is finally exposed, there are dreadful consequences for both Leo and Marian – and the musical artfully uses the difference between what is spoken and what is sung to show the gradual erosion of Leo’s naiveté. After a brief prologue, we see Leo arriving at Brandham hall; he has never seen upper-class life from the inside before, and he finds both the estate and Marian utterly enchanting. Accordingly, from this point on, everything is sung, with the music functioning rather in the same way as heightened prose in a magic-realist novel. Leo thinks he’s in an enchanted world, and the music lends enchantment. Once the singing starts, we are not in a traditional musical, either – the closest equivalent would be something like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. There are almost no songs in the traditional sense. Instead, there are sung scenes that run together creating the effect of a continuous piece of music. But when the scales start to fall from Leo’s eyes, and harsh reality begins to intrude on this enchanted world, the music stops, and in fact the most important, most emotionally painful scenes, in terms of the plot, are spoken rather than sung. In most musicals, the music starts when the emotions get bigger. Here, when the emotions become overwhelming, the music stops. It’s startling, and it works.
It’s not a perfect show. The prologue (in which the older Leo sorts through a trunk of childhood artifacts in his attic as figures from his past encourage him in song to be brave and face his demons), frankly, clunks. The recitative in the sung scenes can get a little relentless, particularly in the first half – partly because the first act is rather slack, stretching about thirty minutes of plot out over an hour and ten minutes. For long stretches, nothing much happens, and people keep singing about it. The music is always interesting, but the show could easily lose half an hour. The second act is much tighter.
There is, though, still a great deal to admire. The production – directed by Roger Haines on a simple but evocative unit set by Michael Pavelka (a bleached wood floor with tufts of grass here and there, skewed walls, doorways with no doors, and an endless summer sky), with exemplary music direction (and piano playing) by Jonathan Gill – is faultless, the performances are superb. The child who played Leo at the performance I saw – Jake Abbott – was astonishingly good, and Sophie Bould’s Marian is perfectly acted and gorgeously sung, but there are no weak links among the cast. The music – accompanied only by a single piano, but conceived that way by the composer (who carefully informs us in a programme interview that he actually turned down additional musicians because he wanted a solo piano only) – is always expertly performed, even if it doesn’t, in the first act, always entirely hold your attention. It rarely coalesces into anything most of us would recognise as a song, but when it finally does, midway through Act One, the song is extraordinary. That would be a song called “Butterfly”, sung by the older Leo as he compares his early days at Brandham to a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis; it’s very, very lovely, and you can hear it here, sung (beautifully) by an actor named Nigel Richards. He’s not in the production, and this recording – made for Mr. Richards’ solo album – uses an orchestration rather than the solo piano accompaniment heard in the theatre, but the chance of a cast recording of the show being made is almost nil, so this will have to do.
The show, after closing in Leeds, goes on to play runs at the Derby Theatre and the Derngate in Northampton (it’s a coproduction between those two venues and the WYP). After that… who knows? It deserves a life, although it’s not perfect. It’s daring, unusual, idiosyncratic, intermittently extraordinary, and beautifully staged and performed. It’s depressing as hell that it takes no less than three regional theatres to finance a production of a new musical that has a single set, a cast of eleven, and one musician, but that’s the state of theatre in this country these days. We’re lucky it got produced at all.