15 December 2016
The Sound Of Music
Review by Head of English, Toby Smith
For one matinee and four nights last week, King’s Theatre resounded to The Sound of Music, in Harry Agg Manning’s musically-pitch-perfect, visually stunning production, led by an excellent ensemble of leads, with a fine supporting cast too.
The Sound of Music is, whether you know the show, or like it or not, a mine of tunes – and words –that have wormed their way into the consciousness. Having seen the film for the first and last time when younger than all save the smallest Von Trapp child, I could still have joined in with the Friday sing-along. Musically, Rogers and Hammerstein, once again, remind why they’re the Gilbert and Sullivan of fifties’ musicals, and the professionalism of the King’s cast ensured that any cheesiness was downplayed with knowing confidence. From the first sister act chorus of ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’, Mother Abbess Flora Davies and her reverend sisters, Scarlett Manger, Hannah Jewell and Rebecca Eckley-Smith, set the tone, appreciating the comedy, but serious about their errant novice, while Flora’s exhortation to ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ showed off the power and purity of her voice, more than equal to this demanding vocal role.
The Von Trapp family, Harry Salmons and Henry Adcock, Eleanor Clark, Loveday Hedgcock, Flora Keeling and Olivia Chamberlain, were the other great ensemble, interacting with apparently genuine family cohesion, and even the telling frictions that made them believable. Olivia was particularly strong as the ingénue Lisl, tentatively twisting her hair for telegraph boy Rolf (James Clark), whose slick charm was more Chicago or Cabaret than alpine fresh, and joining with him in a joyful and equally slick – and rather forward – dance routine as their romance budded. However, it was Ella Rowlands, as the youngest, Gretl, who stole the audience’s hearts. As a family they warmed up very effectively, from their first encounter with Grace Albery’s enthralling Maria, and the sense of mutual support appropriate to the characters, grew convincingly through the course of the production.
The famous ‘Doh re mi’ is largely an essay on song writing, but the choreography moved it beyond the simplicity with which Maria wants to start out, and the energy of the family singers and the effervescent – mostly pupil – band, led by Colin Albery, meant it became one of several toe-tapping numbers in the show. There are, apparently, several numbers in the stage version that didn’t make it to the musical, and the duet of Max (Siji Abere) and Elsa (Taylor Williams) was one such, another witty combination of words and music and performed again with assurance and rapport between the singers. Siji as a flamboyant, charming agent on the make, more Artful Dodger than impoverished impresario, fitted well into the Austrian cultural scene, and Taylor played Elsa as an amiable, unromantic sort, but soft-hearted enough to compromise with encroaching Nazism, which she graciously realises is what has to end her engagement with the principled Captain Von Trapp.
Lorcan Cudlip-Cook, as Von Trapp, was, as appropriate, one of the show’s two stars. He acted every moment of the performance, and if given rather psychologically-implausible changes to live through, was both convincing and effective as both the martinet navy officer first encountered, to the gallant lover and head of the family who flees as the Anschluss begins to bite. Most impressively, perhaps, was how he managed the transition. Imperceptibly, we saw him relax, while retaining the prickly dignity of a man of strong conscience. His ‘Edelweiss' was a highlight, genuinely moving, with a soulful quality and the political resonance carefully charged.
Vocally, however, Grace Albery as Maria, did carry the show. From her first ‘The Hills are alive’ she was barely off stage for more than a short scene, and she captured some of the girlish innocence of a novice who is sent off to be governess to the Von Trapps; always a free-spirit, she has to be pulled by the instinct to liberate the children, to love the Captain, to fear falling for him, and to want to return, and Grace caught each of these moods – with very little scripted dialogue – confidently. Her singing, meanwhile was effortless, lithe, and a strong lead to those around her. This transition was also marked in numerous costume changes from nun’s habit, through dowdy dresses, to the symbolic scarlet in which she returned to the Captain.
The costumes were great, entertaining, even down to the rather hideous curtain-material garb the children migrated to when Maria first freed them from their uniforms. There was something appropriately sinister about seeing the swastika armbands worn onstage by various characters, and on the arm of the genuinely menacing Beetle Brown as party official Herr Zeller, it brought a continual threat. Matthew Bullman as the German Admiral Von Schreiber was appropriately unpleasant. Overall, the supporting cast, of nuns, ball-goers and Third Reich officials, were in tune as a chorus, and generally well drilled, if the Nazis were a little lacking in military backbone. The house staff, Ella Buckley as Frau Schmidt and Zak Higginson as Franz, were engaging, and the roles confidently carried.
Chris Hoad’s set was also impressive: theatrically versatile, suggestive of grandeur on a necessary scale, and most importantly, adaptable, it was changed a good number of times. At times the play felt like a stage adaptation from screen, where short scenes are effortless; on stage it entailed the moving of scenery, but this was done swiftly and unobtrusively. Lighting and sound were equally professional. The backstage ensemble was largely also pupil-run, and they took their responsibilities with the same professionalism as the cast.
As the Von Trapps hid behind the abbey wall, Rolf’s torch picking out their faces in the darkness, the entire house was caught for several moments’ brilliant, tense silence: there was magic in the way this cast worked together and they and Harry Agg-Manning deserve great credit on a magnificent production. The full houses who went away with Flora’s reprise of ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ in their ears, should be wanting to come back soon for more drama at King’s.