Was Dodie Smith’s beloved 1948 novel crying out to be made into a musical? On the basis of this lacklustre show, probably not. A 1930s-set coming of age story written in the voice of aspiring young novelist Cassandra, who determines to "capture" her eccentric family and their life in a dilapidated castle – and ends up chronicling a tangled web of first loves when two American brothers show up – has a memorably winning tone that sails you through the plot’s dafter elements. On stage, served up in Teresa Howard and Steven Edis’ earnestly sentimental songs, the whimsy collapses like a left-out soufflé.
Shona Morris’ movement – much slo-mo, vaguely symbolic gesturing – feels tired and unfocused, and slows the action down. The cast run blindly in circles or feebly mime swimming; London is evoked by people walking fast while looking at their watches. It needs to try harder.
Musically, there are nods to the era, although while a tango between two ambitious older American ladies, droll on the unreliability of men, has some sizzle, a half-hearted Charleston to a song about, ahem, dancing in the rain only serves to remind you of the fizz this musical is lacking.
Lowri Izzard’s Cassandra can be a bit sweet and simpering, but there’s a bright-eyed ardency there too that carries you through her romantic confusions and misdemeanours. The dreamy Kate Batter imbues her social-climbing sister Rose, longing for peach towels more than true love, with a surprising degree of sympathy. Elsewhere, the cast seem stuck between a slight stiffness and caricature: I don’t really believe them. The American brothers are hardly head-turningly romantic types, while Cassandra’s reclusive writer father (Ben Watson) becomes a rigid, bellowing take on the absent-minded artistic genius. A song about overcoming his angsty writer’s block tests the patience.
Ti Green’s set, two towers of wooden chairs and a curving wooden staircase, is rackety but evocative: it quite perfectly, well, captures the castle. And there’s really gorgeous use of watercolour style fluttering backdrops and curtains, which sensitively lit by Mike Gunning delightfully suggest the changing seasons. Brigid Larmour’s production is good on this: there’s a clear, smooth sense of time passing, the characters changing with it. That said, a midsummer pagan ritual that should have a dangerous, erotic charge comes across more like a primary school pageant.
Devoted fans of the book may find enjoyment in seeing this terribly British story of winsome eccentricity brought to life – I found it disappointing. It’s so terribly twee. The declamatory staginess of it all, and the overwrought sincerity of songs, weighs down rather than raises up the spirit of Smith’s original.
I Capture the Castle runs at Watford Palace Theatre until 22 April, and then tours the UK.