Almost exactly two years ago to the day, I first heard the plangent notes of composer/lyricist Darren Clark's haunting newly-written, instantly memorable opening number "Once Upon A Withy". Sadly, the show's triumphant press night was its last performance, thanks to the pandemic; so it was a joy to find myself drawn straight back into this musical reimagining of Ursula Wills' magical tale by Clark and Rhys Jennings (book), thanks to this ear worm of a folk tune. I was captivated right from its opening notes sung in the rich baritone of Julian Forsyth, returning to the pivotal role of the Old Basketmaker who knows how to weave magic.
In fact birdsong is what you get to hear first, thanks to sound designer Ella Waldström and a magnificent willow dominates Anna Kelsey's sylvan glade, surely a mother tree, offering shelter, a landmark, a meeting place in the subtle, shifting light and shade of Hartley TA Kemp.
The voices of the 12-strong company echo Forsyth, blending in rich harmony, accompanied by a trio of dedicated onstage multi-instrumentalists led by MD Pat Moran and subtly supplemented by the actor/musicians among the cast: Angela Caesar's Cobbler's Wife and Jonathan Charles' Innkeep, both on fiddle and reprising their roles, while new to the show is Jack Quarton's Tailor on accordion.
Together the company weaves a tapestry of sound invoking a mythic England of fairy tale and legend. Melding into "Diddely-I-Ten Day", they boast about their ‘pretty town' and it's clear that we are in the presence of its most prominent couples: the Cobbler is played by newly-cast veteran physical actor Joe Alessi, a great match for big-voiced, exuberantly expansive Angela Caesar; Charles' Innkeep is once again paired with Claire-Marie Hall as his dominating wife; and poshest of all, Jack Quarton's snappily-dressed Tailor is outshone only by newcomer Davina Moon as his expensively-outfitted, supremely devious Wife.
The self-satisfied townsfolk may sing that theirs is a pretty town and dance up an exuberant, elegant storm, but the cruelty, especially of the town's matrons, towards the fish-seller they have dubbed Ugly Girl and ostracised in their disgust is actually pretty chilling. "Ugly stays where ugly should", they sneer.
Gemma Sutton, new to this central role, has a special feistiness. The willow tree from which the withy is woven does not seem to hear her confidences: "I know you cannot hear my pleas/After all you're just a tree," So when Basket, the mischievous dog woven from withies, leads her to his magical master the Old Basketmaker, it gives her the desperate idea of pleading with him to weave her a husband from withies just as he has proved he can weave a living dog.
Forsyth's deep down-to-earth voice grounds his magic: his Wicker Husband is genuinely, surreally, a rounded superhuman consort. It takes four company members to bring him to life. Puppeteer Sebastian Charles – his ‘heart' – is fresh from the team walking giant refugee puppet Little Amal across Europe; Nisha Anil takes his feet; Tom Norman adds to the overall effect with swing (he also animates Basket); and Olivier Award-winning George Maguire (for Sunny Afternoon, the Kinks' musical) is credited with simply playing the Wicker Man himself. His is a voice to captivate, and he's clearly had a thorough grounding in puppeteering from puppetry director and designer Finn Caldwell. The puppeteer, also responsible also for War Horse, has clearly upped the anti in the two years since The Wicker Husband first walked.
He is both simply, as the crude saying goes "sex on legs;" and yet so much more. He really does seem to have a mind of his own. He is vulnerable, guileless and beautiful. As with War Horse, you can see all the workings, but it actually adds to rather than detracts from his meta reality. He is also endowed with desire and this time an awareness of how he might achieve his own desires.
No wonder this proves a potential recipe for disaster for Ugly Girl, for he can be ‘manipulated' in all the wrong ways. There is something medieval in the threat of fire when your spouse can be set alight not just figuratively with the fires of desire, but for real.
The cruel deviousness of the Tailor's Wife, whose lying sob story leads to the ‘birth' of a wicker baby in danger of becoming a pawn to be fought over, ups the anti to the max/adds to the tension.
So The Wicker Husband has it all. A captivating story with glorious music brilliantly performed by a tight ensemble; inspired direction by Charlotte Westenra, who has been with the project from the start and had the vision to urge its creators to get together; groundbreaking choreography by Steven Harris that takes in puppets too. Most remarkable of all, a larger than life-size puppet as leading man. It is getting well-deserved standing ovations. This second chance to see an extraordinarily original, beautiful and bewitching musical is an opportunity not to be missed.