When I was younger, I loved Dodie Smith's 'I Capture the Castle', so the news it was being turned into a musical was very welcome.
On Thursday evening, I took my first trip to the Bolton Octagon and was transported right back into that world my imagination had loved.
This adaptation is a beautiful one - whimsical, innovative and performed by a highly accomplished cast.
It was always going to be a challenge to transfer to the stage a story that plays out largely in the head and diary or 17 year-old Cassandra, but this play handles that obstacle well.
Early scenes saw her writing in her diary, with the rest of the cast pausing in freeze frame as she added extra commentary and asides. This went on for just long enough to let audiences realise we were viewing events through her eyes, and set up the idea that what we were seeing maybe wasn't 100% truth, but a truth through the eyes of a young woman.
Adding well to this effect was Cassandra's very 'realistic' character set alongside the rest of the cast, who were really more like caricatures. They were real people, but we were viewing them as characters in her story. The set, too, with a castle created out of piled up old chairs, enhanced this recurring idea of reality, truth and storytelling, adding a childlike, playful layer to the very real struggles of life living in this dilapidated frame.
It's rare that I see a show I know nothing about, and musicals in particular I usually know the music of inside out before attending, so it was a lovely experience to let this one wash over me, and be introduced to the music in its proper form, on stage with live musicians (a band of three - I think - who were brilliant). Composer Steven Edis has done a superb job with the music of this show, to the point there didn't even feel like there was a transition between the spoken word and song, because it blended seamlessly. There were mixed influences, including folksong and American swing, and song after song I thoroughly enjoyed. My particular favourites were the opening song, for its scene-setting prowess, Aunt Leda's song about making Steven a star, and the quartet between Cassandra, Rose, Simon and Neil.
When presenting a brand new musical based on a much-loved novel, it's important to get your casting right. I Capture the Castle has done just that.
I could write an entire piece about Lowri Izzard, who took on the lead role of Cassandra. In my opinion, nobody could have played this role better. She occupied that in between space of girl and woman so well, taking us on a journey of her own discovery, and I truly felt I was watching Cassandra, not an actress playing her. In addition to that, her vocals were spot on, with songs like 'Words Words Words' in Act 2 really demonstrating her range and control.
Topaz was played by Suzanne Ahmet, and was a personal favourite. It's a dramatic, flamboyant role, but a woman who clearly does have issues and depth. Ahmer rose to the challenge, and I particularly enjoyed the rich, low tones of her voice. Ben Watson took on the part of her husband, James, and I thought he embodied the tortured novelist well, really coming to life in Act 2.
Simon (Theo Boyce) and Neil (Luke Dale) were a believable double act, with their presence always very clearly felt on stage, representing the overwhelming impact their arrival had on the lives of the central family. I did at times want a little more from them in their quieter moments, maybe more reaction to the activity unfolding around them, but they fulfilled the role well. Isaac Stanmore's Stephen - although I did struggle to decide what his accent was supposed to be as it appeared to alter throughout - was the lovable 'boy next door', truly doting on Cassandra. His enthusiasm was infectious and you really found yourself rooting for him.
The women, though, were the real stars of the show, and joining Izzard and Ahmet were Kate Batter (Rose), Julia St John (Mrs Cotton) and Shona White (Leda). Rose is a tricky one, as at first glance she could come across shallow, but Batter played out her story well, blossoming on her own journey of finding herself and realising her true wants and needs. St John and White had the audience in the palm of their hands during their duet about men and their shortcomings, and both women confidently dominated their scenes in the way such women clearly would have done. Shona White's voice was really brilliant, and I could happily have listened to her sing for much longer.
I could continue, but really my message is that you need to get out there and see this show. It's a highly accomplished new musical, with slick direction and choreography, a strong cast and beautiful music. At its centre is an actress (Lowri Izzard) who will keep audience after audience captivated, and I hope to see this show continue for a good time.