Tuesday, June 2, 2015

'The Clockmaker's Daughter' at the Landor Theatre, 1st June 2015

The Landor is an awfully dusty theatre. So dusty that, at the end of The Clockmaker's Daughter, a mote got in my eye, producing a few involuntary tears. Now, don't think for a second that this musical made this stony-hearted, cynical theatre critic cry - perish the thought! 

....Oh who am I kidding? Anyway, judging from the sniffles going around the theatre I was far from alone in getting all teary-eyed and wobbly-lipped at the climax of this wonderful new musical by Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn.

This is a very rare thing; a brand new fairytale that somehow feels as if it's been with us all along. Set sometime in the 18th century, we meet the residents of the bucolic village of Spindlewoode. Renowned local clockmaker Abraham (Lawrence Carmichael) is at a loss following the tragic death of his beloved wife. Wracked by grief he creates a clockwork replacement that, by some miracle, comes to life.

Shocked and amazed at what he's accomplished, he names her Constance (Jennifer Harding) and treats her as if she's his own daughter. Yet all too soon the bright lights of the nearby village draw the curious Constance towards them like a moth to a flame. After an innocent accident results in a prized wedding dress falling into a well, Constance resolves to replace it - turning out an exquisite dress in a matter of hours. 

Now she's the toast of the town, providing beautiful dresses to all and sundry. This draws the ire of egotistical local seamstress Ma Riley (Jo Wickham), who's understandably paranoid that Constance's generosity will wreck her business. Matters are further complicated when her son Will (Alan McHale), begins to fall for this mysteriously talented newcomer. But dark clouds soon gather on the horizon. After all, how will this superstitious village react when they discover that no heart beats under Constance's skin, just the metronomic tick-tock of clockwork?

There's chunks of Edward Scissorhands here, combined with the atmosphere of Beauty and the Beast, a touch of Blade Runner philosophy and myriad tiny elements plucked from the folklore canon (Pinocchio, Frankenstein et al). Despite these influences, there's a core of originality that makes The Clockmaker's Daughter firmly its own story, one that can just about stand alongside the classics of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm.

More than anything, the specific sense I got was that I was watching some forgotten Disney animated classic. Not some winks-to-the-parents, postmodern money churner, but one of those old-school solid gold animation classics - a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella or The Little Mermaid. Comparing something to Disney feels like a backhanded compliment, the House of Mouse rapaciously mining, sanitising and commodifying  the fairytale. But this is like Disney at it's best, that unmistakable style running right through the core of this show: from the scheming, extravagant villain, to the characterful supporting cast, to the effortless switches in tone between comedy, tragedy and romance, right down to the simple purity of the heroine's soul.

It's all buoyed up by an impressive book that had me tapping my toe throughout. Most obviously impressive are the bombastic numbers featuring the entire town. Market Day is an explosion of exuberant energy, with the various villagers dancing around each other proffering their wares. A darker energy is present in the ominous A Town Meeting, the music perfectly conveying hysteria and building malevolent. 

But my favourite moments came in Jennifer Harding's solo performances. A Story of My Own is a fantastic summation of Constance's desires, peppered with sincerity and recognisable desire. The real virtuoso moment comes in the climactic Clockwork. The show has been great up to this point, but things get kicked up a notch here - Harding stunning the audience with a visceral vocal performance that takes the show to unexpected emotional heights.

All that is built on a bedrock of smart, solid and confident direction of Robert McWhir. The Landor Theatre's performance space isn't particularly huge, yet even with this large cast things never feel cramped. In the crowd scenes he gives each character has something to do, their stories being quietly woven into the village backdrop. This is further elevated by David Shield's impressively detailed and versatile set, able to be reconfigured in many different ways. The Landor has a reputation for it's production values, this is up there with the most impressive I've seen in fringe theatre.

The Clockmaker's Daughter is a hugely impressive achievement from top to bottom. It's got gigantic success written all over it, of all the productions I've seen lately it's the one I can most easily imagine making a jump to the West End stage. This is the kind of thing audiences go bananas for, a classically tinged original fairytale with top-notch songs, universally excellent performances and expert and intelligent direction. 

And it made me cry! Me! Cry! Who would have thought?! Take your children! Take your girlfriend! Go on your own if you have to!


The Clockmaker's Daughter is at the Landor Theatre until 4th July. Tickets here.

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