Maybe it was fate that book writer Rhys Jennings lighted on Ursula Wills-Jones' dark and bewitching short story; that director Charlotte Westenra suggested it had the makings of a musical; that while on tour with composer Darren Clark, Jennings fired Clark's interest to start writing songs. A magical musical has come out of these efforts, with some detailed and richly rewarding development opportunity supported by the inaugural Stiles and Drew Mentorship Award.
Designer Anna Kelsey has turned the intimate Watermill Theatre space inside out. Her willow tree bends over sun-kissed waters fringed with bulrushes, to a soundscape of birdsong by sound designer Ella Wahlström that mimics the beauty of the natural world outside the venue itself.
The duo of onstage musicians – Jon Whitten on keyboards and MD Pat Moran on guitar and recorder – open with the plangent minor chords of Clark's richly evocative folk-style music and invoke a mythic England of fairy tale and legend. Cast members on fiddle only intensify the magical atmosphere.
The story starts gaily enough in a prosperous picture postcard town. But even though the self-satisfied townsfolk may sing and dance up an exuberant, elegant storm, their cruelty and disgust towards the ostracised fish-seller they have dubbed Ugly Girl is chilling. Happily, in the willow tree above the river where she catches and guts the fish that are her livelihood, the lonely girl finds not just a refuge beneath its branches, but a friend to confide in even if it does not seem to reply.
Magic awaits Ugly Girl as she chances on the Old Basket Maker by chasing his mischievous fish-thieving wicker dog Basket, the first of the extraordinary, utterly convincing yet entirely fanciful puppets designed and directed by Finn Caldwell (whose credits include director of puppetry/ movement for War Horse), working with a team of seven specialist creatives. Realising the potential of the eccentric old enchanter's practical magic to bring to life creatures made from willow withy, Ugly Girl begs him to weave her a wicker husband. Obligingly and painstakingly he fashions and breathes life into a being of strange and compelling beauty, sweet-natured and utterly without guile.
Caldwell does the titular character proud, with a face and eyes so open and expressive that he seems to be sharing his thoughts – a very real romantic lead who makes for a spellbinding tale. The Wicker Husband puppet is a delightfully vivid triumph for the trio who work with him, manipulated by puppeteers Elon Morris and Scarlet Wilderink (who also energises Basket the dog) and endowed with a voice of extraordinary richness thanks to Yazdan Qafouri.
The story is woven into a rich tapestry with Clark's music and lyrics, gloriously realised by Westenra's cast of actor-musicians led by Moran and Whitten. Each gives their all to create the show's shifting moods, underscored by Steven Harris's energetic choreography and further enhanced by Hartley T A Kemp's atmospheric lighting.
There are no weak links in Westenra's perfectly nuanced production. Julian Forsyth's tall white-bearded Old Basket Maker commands the stage with his magisterial stillness and big voice. There is a real meeting of minds between Forsyth and Laura Johnson's plucky, resourceful Ugly Girl, who shines with genuine inner beauty and displays the kindness lacking in the townsfolk.
All six of the greedy gossiping townsfolk make their mark, led by Zoë Rainey's glamorous, devious snob of a Tailor's Wife. Jack Beale complements her with his compliant Tailor, trying to creep out from under the thumb. Courtesy of designer Kelsey's elegant brocades, the pair look a cut above the other merchants. Stephen Leask embodies the brash Cobbler and huge-voiced Angela Caesar his exuberant Cobbler's Wife. Jonathan Charles' Innkeeper and Claire-Marie Hall as Innkeeper's Wife are another perfectly-matched pair of wannabe wheeler dealers.
So does good triumph over evil, in what is ultimately a moral fable as cruel as any of Hans Christian Andersen's? That would be telling, but this beautiful and bewitching, fresh and entirely original musical comes to a conclusion that is as devastating as it is unexpected.