There;s not a word of Shakespeare in Howard Goodall's entrancing musical version of this beautiful play, so he's probably entitled to change the definite article in the title to the indefinite, thereby allowing his librettist, Nick Stimson, a full-blown “adaptation” credit.
The story is followed pretty closely, though much more is made of the rival regimes in Sicily and Bohemia, with greatcoats, goose-steps and march-pasts in the first act, and Queen Ekatarina (the re-named Hermione) insisting that “love is not a rapture - it’s who we are.”
At least that’s an advance on “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” the dread epigraph in Love Story, Goodall’s last musical theatre outing, which somehow mistook passion for prim proselytising-song.
This score is far less constrained by clinical decorum or even good taste; it’s a big, baggy, seductive collection of marches and ballads, complex chorales and interwoven musical lines at dramatic flash points, such as the trial of the Queen or the final revelations.
And Goodall is such a skilful, insinuating composer that you can literally hear the shift from the entwined, furrow-browed mood of Leontes’ jealousy and marital prosecution to the sunshine and floral dance of the Bohemia scenes, where the delightful pairing of Abigail Matthews as Perdita and Fra Fee (don’t panic, he’s Irish) as Florizel discharge a beautiful love duet, “When You Sing.”
You’d never have thought a musical could wrestle The Winter’s Tale to the ground, but Andrew Keates’s production has a jolly good try, considerably abetted by the always high presentation standards at this little venue - there is clever design by Martin Thomas, wittily resourceful choreography by Cressida Carré and a terrific, visible quartet led by George Dyer on keyboards.
The singing is of a high standard, too, especially that of Pete Gallagher (a notable Caiphas in the recent rock arena Jesus Christ Superstar) as Leontes and the captivating Helena Blackman as Paulina, one of the great Shakespearean women and the guardian of the plot.
The clown scenes prove intractable – they can be that, anyway, in “straight” productions – and the comic clothes exchange number doesn’t quite land. Nor is this play as well suited to musical theatre as was A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Goodall’s enchanting The Dreaming; will he ever solve the big puzzle and find the right subject for another hit?
But A Winter’s Tale is such a relief in a year (so far) of poor new musical theatre, even if Goodall and Stimson shy away from killing off little Mamillius who returns, annoyingly, embalmed in a wheelchair, to spoil his mother’s big awakening scene at the end.