You may have seen the posters advertising The Go-Between in the tube, with musical legend Michael Crawford, cast as the main protagonist Leo Colston, looking wistfully into the horizon. It’s his first West End show in six years, after taking the title role in The Wizard of Oz, and he’s announced that this one will be his last. Before seeing it I thought it rather apt that Crawford had chosen Richard Taylor’s hugely nostalgic musical as his swan song, with lyrics by David Wood adapted from the 1953 novel of the same name by L P Hartley, yet in hindsight it may be one role too many.
First premièred at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2011, this Green Light Stage and Bill Kenwright co-production features a sparse but effective staging, with dining room chairs and an old trunk utilised as props in every scene, just don’t go along expecting dozens of costume and set changes and a soaring full orchestra, there is very little variety other than some clever lighting. The lone pianist, positioned on the stage with a grand piano throughout, meanwhile continues the wistful theme, (or was this just for budgetary reasons?), yet is often lost when the chorus go full pelt; one of the reasons why the melodies blend into one another whilst failing to leave any more of an impression than the lyrics. If you’d be surprised at seeing a poster reading ‘Debussy – The Musical’ then it’s about as bizarre as that. This ethereal and melancholy work, whilst well intentioned, is a tenuous reworking of a classic English novel and, far from being evocative, is sickly-sweet when the score is partnered with Wood’s repetitive and overly trite lyrics.
Hartley’s largely autobiographical tale, The Go-Between was never the most obvious choice for a musical, yet Roger Haines’s strong direction means that the pace is the least of the production’s problems. Michael Crawford remains on stage throughout as Leo Colston, who recalls spending one summer at his boarding school friend’s aristocratic country pile in Norfolk. When said friend, Marcus, falls ill with measles, Leo is largely left to his own devices, only to be persuaded by his friend’s captivating sister Marian (Gemma Sutton) and her tenant farmer lover Ted (Stuart Ward) to carry illicit messages between them; sparking a moral conflict that will live with him for the rest of his life. Six boys are being alternated in the roles of the young Leo and Marcus, but on my night Archie Stevens as Marcus far outshone William Thompson as Leo, due to impressive vocal control and more natural acting.
Stephen Carlile shines as Trimingham, the Viscount to whom Marian is promised, while both Sutton and Ward are the main anchors in this ambitious retelling, for whilst the chemistry between them is sadly never explored in any scenes of passion, their own vocal talents lend some much needed texture to Richard Taylor’s otherwise one dimensional and uninspiring score. One has to sympathise that this is Taylor’s West End début, yet both the songs and overall concept still require a lot more work to give it the emotional pull it needs. To be frank, if you’ll pardon the pun, most of the audience probably bought a ticket on the basis of seeing Michael Crawford, however, his voice is sadly jaded and, when shadowing the actors who bring his tender reminiscences to life, his delivery is rather clumsy and there are many occasions, such as when he sings ‘Butterfly’ (one of the only songs that you could term an aria), that make you want to chuckle or groan rather than reach for your handkerchief. There’s no doubt that, on this occasion, Crawford was cast more for his box-office appeal than the power of his vocal chords.
Despite the second half being far too long and hammy – with Sutton doing a dire turn of playing Marian as an old woman – I wasn’t surprised that many ladies, (no doubt avid Crawford fans), in the audience rose to their feet regardless of the production’s failings, while I applauded more out of pity and simple politeness than a sense of gratitude for an entertaining evening. Did I feel any emotion? I had laughed when I probably wasn’t meant to, felt sadness at Crawford ending his career in musical theatre on such a low, and left the theatre with a huge sense of relief that I could Go. Weirdly the only melody and lyrics I couldn’t get out of my head as I made my way home was Crawford singing ‘All I Ask of You’ from Phantom. Those were the days.
The Go-Between at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London, until 15th October 2016. Running time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes including an interval. For more information and tickets visit the website.