Muddy reviews: I Capture the castle

New British musicals don’t come along very often. As for a British musical born and bred in Hertfordshire, well, it’s up there with a solstice lunar eclipse. Which is why attending the press night for I Capture the Castle, the new musical by Teresa Howard and Steven Edis at Watford Palace Theatre, found me all of a tingle, and that was way before I spotted Jenni Murray in the foyer. And yes, I managed to behave myself, although I could feel my knees crumpling into an involuntary curtsey.

Lowri Izzard as Cassandra                                                                                                                            Credit: Richard Lakos

I arrive prepared, having spent the last couple of days re-reading I Capture the Castle, a novel I last read when I was probably the age of Cassandra Mortmain, the 17-year-old protagonist and narrator. I Capture the Castle is the first novel written by Dodie Smith, the author who went on to write 101 Dalmations. To keep things local, Dodie Smith lived in Essex from 1934 until her death in 1990, in the picture perfect village of Finchingfield. One of her dogs was called Pongo.

Dodie Smith                                                                                                                                                 Credit: Gamma-Keystone

The Mortmain family: father James, daughters Rose and Cassandra, and stepmother Topaz, live in virtual poverty in a rented castle in Suffolk that has overstepped the romantic crumble mark and is on the verge of being dangerous to live in. The father, played by Ben Watson, is a blocked writer. After a huge success with his first novel, he is now suffering from second album syndrome. They’re now behind on the rent. Cassandra, brilliantly played by Lowri Izzard, a recently hatched graduate from RADA, where Dodie Smith was once a student, is recording, or ‘capturing’ all of the events – major and minor – in her diary. Being a diarist is her way of limbering up before writing a novel. Kate Batter plays Rose, Cassandra’s sister, who dreams of a better life. Their brother Thomas didn’t made this musical production, but strangely, I didn’t notice this until I got home. Suzanne Ahmet is Topaz, who plays the lute and enjoys nudity in nature – although this happens off stage so you can bring the kids! I would say that it’s perfect for children from age 8, particularly girls.

Lowri Izzard (Cassandra), Kate Batter (Rose) and Suzanne Ahmet (Topaz) in rehearsal

Hope springs with the arrival of two dashing and seemingly exotic American brothers, Simon (Theo Boyce) and Neil (Luke Dale), one of whom has inherited the whole estate and is their new landlord. He soon waives their rent. It gets a bit Austen-esque at this point, with Rose yearning to win the heart of one of the brothers to free the whole family from poverty, something that earns her the nickname of gold digger. The brothers have a mother, Mrs Cotton (Julia St John), whose glamorous presence makes Mr Mortmain venture down the staircase and even leave the castle for sleepovers in her London flat. What follows is people falling in love and then realising they’ve backed the wrong person. There’s also Stephen, played by Isaac Stanmore, an orphan and the estate gardener, who has been practically adopted by the Mortmains, and who is in love with Cassandra. Photographer Leda (Shona White) takes a shine to Stephen, and he also ends up on a train to London, with his ultimate destination Hollywood. The precarious state of the family’s finances and living conditions – there’s a lot of rain, and the castle is inevitably not watertight – is brought to life by the vertiginous set, designed by Ti Green, with a teetering Jenga pile of chairs, ladders and wooden scaffolding. I loved the set. The towering wooden structure glows, and all the colours – shades of lichen – are very on trend with this season’s green. The story starts on the brink of spring and the family’s clothes have recently been dyed green by stepmother Topaz in between bouts of lute practice.

Ben Watson, Lowri Izzard                                                                                                                               Credit: Richard Lakos

The strongest element of the novel is Cassandra’s voice. Teresa Howard’s book has captured the emotion and witty observation of the diarist’s voice, and I liked this stage Cassandra as much as the one I knew from the novel. Lowri Izzard embodies Cassandra with a quivering hope and an inquisitive zest for life experience. As she darts around the stage I am rooting for her. Teresa Howard (who was on Woman’s Hour talking to Jenni Murray) has had to tell a lot of the story through her lyrics. When Rose talks about her yearning for peach towels, for her a symbol of ultimate luxury, it’s a cue for a song about peach towels. As a new voice, Lowri Izzard’s singing is wonderful and she has an impressive range. You may have seen the film adaptation of I Capture the Castle, where Romola Garai played Cassandra, in her first acting role. This being the stage, a trip to the Suffolk coast is marked by whipping wind sounds and the appearance of a striped deckchair. Swimming around the moat is represented by doing breast stroke while lying on chairs.

Dodie Smith with her dog Charley                                                                        Credit: Jane Bown/Observer

The music is by Steven Edis, and there are lots of songs. The variety of styles took me by surprise. There’s a splash of something a little bit Sondheim. There’s some English folk to mark the solstice. You’ve got jazz, swing and a bit of tango. There’s a nod to the musical On the Town, when the father says, ‘New York? It’s a wonderful town.’ There’s some dance, and lots of movement. A couple of days after seeing it, I could still sing bits of The Diary Song. It’s the opening number with the famous first line from the novel: I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. Didn’t The Cure write a similar song?

Ben Watson as James Mortmain                                                                                                                  Credit: Richard Lakos

There were clearly lots of friends and family in the audience on the night I was there. During the interval I heard someone say, ‘The whole of Watford is here, including Bradley Walsh.’ I didn’t spot Bradley Walsh, and anyway, wasn’t he busy with The Nightly Show? But the general feeling from the audience was one of warmth. And on stage there is a palpable feeling of warmth. The cast works together with verve and there’s an energy that crackles. Everyone seems to be having a good time. It’s far funnier than I had expected and I laughed a lot. The first act zips along and when it came to the interval I had a moment of ‘Really? Already?’ When we reconvened there was a bit of a dip, but that could have been because I necked a gin and tonic on an empty stomach, and in record time, and then started to feel hungry. That’s theatre. It soon got back up to speed again, albeit it at a more meditative pace, and there was a lot of romantic untangling to do before the final curtain.

Luke Dale, Shona White, Julia St John                                                                                                       Credit: Richard Lakos

I Capture the Castle is uplifting and hopeful. I loved it. And the venue is perfect. Watford Palace Theatre is a grand old Edwardian theatre with proscenium arch and a long musical history. At one point Jimmy Perry, the creator of Dad’s Army, was the owner manager. There’s a whole back story about how the current director, Brigid Larmour, who is also the artistic director at Watford Palace Theatre, has worked for almost ten years to get this show on stage. One of the co-producers is the Octagon Theatre Bolton which is where the show will go after Watford, followed by the Oxford Playhouse in May. Go and see I Capture the Castle. It’s a labour of love with a sweetness at its core. The cast works together with such good humour to create a romantic and joyous musical with a big heart. I can’t get the opening song out of my head. I might go and see it again.

Theo Boyce, Lowri Izzard                                                                                                                               Credit: Richard Lakos

I Capture the Castle is at Watford Palace Theatre until Sat 22 April. Watford Palace Theatre, 20 Clarendon Road, WD17 1JZ

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