The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Reviewed – 25th February 2021
“With enough spectacle, big chorus numbers and powerful performances, this show could be a contender”
The latest offering by the Southwark Playhouse is a musical adaptation of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, based on Goethe’s famous poem. It’s a story probably better known to audiences as a cartoon version starring Mickey Mouse in Disney’s Fantasia, where the young Mickey attempts to emulate his sorcerer boss by casting a magic spell, and rapidly gets in over his head. Dancing broomsticks and magical mayhem on screen are accompanied by composer Paul Dukas’ memorable score. Goethe’s poem, on the other hand, focuses firmly on more troublesome themes, such as lying, and pretending to be something you are not, and how good intentions will not save you from the consequences of your own arrogance and ignorance. In the Southwark Playhouse version, with book and lyrics by Richard Hough, and music by Ben Morales Frost, an attempt is made to update the story by making the young apprentice a daughter desperate for her magician father’s approval. She isn’t arrogant, but with a typical teenager’s desire for independence, decides to flex her magical muscles before she’s quite ready. And to be fair, she has an overprotective father who tries to push her in directions she knows won’t work for her. The story is placed firmly in the north (with northern English accents) but rather bewilderingly, the location is referred to as Midgard. Before you get excited, I have to warn you there isn’t a Norse god in sight.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Hough and Frost’s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is that it tries too hard to be all things to everyone. It’s an unlikely mash up of magic versus science, northern belt and braces versus southern decadence, and capitalist exploitation of the working class. Add to that an environmental theme of human exploitation of natural resources, personified in the Aurora or Northern Lights that is somehow channeling its power through the magician and his child. In short, you have a plot that goes something like Ibsen’s Enemy of the People meets Mary Poppins. Goethe, this is not, even if there is a lively chorus of dancing broomsticks.
Nevertheless, this is a musical that has audience appeal. The diverse cast is charming, with particularly strong performances from Mary Moore as Eva, the Magician’s daughter, and David Thaxton, as her father, Johan. There is a heartwarming connection between these two on stage which is lovely to see, and it helps cement the drama that evolves as the two battle the evil capitalist forces of Fabian Lyddeker (Marc Pickering) and his strongwilled mother Lamia (Dawn Hope). Thaxton in particular, brings a nice intensity to his role of a man trying to keep his daughter safe from the powers that threaten to overwhelm them both. The strengths of this musical lie in the music and lyrics, and director Charlotte Westenra stages the action in such a way that gives the singers and dancers plenty of space (in a limited space) to shine. The musicians, under the direction of Alan Williams, do a great job with the score, and don’t overpower the voices. There are plenty of comic moments for the minor characters, and Yazdan Qafouri as Eva’s lovestruck young scientist suitor, plays his part with a sweet vulnerability that is sure to win fans. The costume and set design (Anna Kelsey) miss what few opportunities there are to be spectacular, but this is a musical staged on a small stage—not ideal for a show that involves the majesty of celestial phenomena and the pyrotechnics of exploding refineries.
This version of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice really belongs on a West End stage. With enough spectacle, big chorus numbers and powerful performances, this show could be a contender. But the plot needs work. Bring back Goethe’s tough mindedness. It won’t hurt The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a bit, and it would be great to get away from the sentimentality of the Disney adaptation. Why not think Wicked meets—just about any musical with complex, morally conflicted leading characters? In a world hurtling towards climate catastrophe and battling toxic capitalism, this could be a winner.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Geraint Lewis
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Recently reviewed by Dominica:
Night of the Living Dead Live!
Reviewed – 16th April 2019
“full of unique and inventive ideas that create an air of originality to the play”
Based on George A. Romero’s classic 1968 movie of the same name, Night of the Living Dead Live! translates the horror story to the stage. This comedic adaptation is stylish and performed brilliantly with some exciting theatrical twists, however it doesn’t quite live up to its horror-comedy expectation.
The show opens with the murder of Ben (Ashley Samuels), who has been hiding in a house from ghouls, which are essentially zombies. Discovered by the Chief (Mike Bodie) and his sidekick Vince (Tama Phethean), the story then rewinds as we watch how the whole thing unfolded. An eclectic mix of characters assemble, including a squabbling couple, a soppy, loved up couple, and the seemingly vacant Barbara (Mari McGinlay). The first act follows the characters bicker and fight in their attempts at survival, and the second act then diverts from the original film narrative in its exploration of alternate endings; what if the leader of the group was a white, all-American man, or what if the leader was a woman? The show plays out every possibility to test which is the best method to survive the night of the living dead.
The production is full of unique and inventive ideas that create an air of originality to the play. Firstly, a section of the audience is seated on stage, dressed in boiler suits and shower caps, literally seated in the middle of the drama. These members of the audience are invisible to the characters on stage, but they are not safe from the blood splatters and violence that plays out before them; the seating area is quite literally called the ‘splatter zone’. To my relief, I wasn’t seated on stage, but I enjoyed watching those who were – their amusement and horror at being covered in blood became a comedic element in itself.
Secondly, the design of the production (Diego Pitarch) was stylish as it attempted to replicate the black and white aesthetic of the movie. The actors were all painted and dressed monochromatically, as was the entire set, and this was really effective in creating the old movie tone that laced the script and performance in general. This tone was heightened in the use of music; tense country music introduced the scenes (soundscape and compositions Samuel West) alongside dramatic, horror movie sounds (sound design James Nicholson and Paul Gavin) that kept all the audience on the edge of their seats – I heard people gasp and felt them jump when these sound effects were played. The production understood the importance of sound in creating tension and exploited it to its full advantage.
Similarly, performances were strong all round, and every actor managed to intentionally embody that awkward style of the stilted, old-Hollywood performers. Jennifer Harding was a real stand-out, playing two very contrasting characters with absolute conviction and perfect comedy- both the characters of Helen and Judy became a joy to watch. Benji Sperring’s direction was neat and flowed nicely, and he certainly lived up to his ambition of wanting to make theatre fun.
That said, there were moments in the drama that lacked significant tension that the design and performances couldn’t disguise. The play started off with a lot of promise but it took too long to progress the narrative. The mix of horror and comedy felt natural to the piece, but the first act slowed in certain places and while the second act redeemed it, picking up the pace, the repetitive structure seemed to stunt its potential rather than push it further. While some jokes sparked, other felt laboured and I felt restless rewatching certain pieces of dialogue over and over. Despite that, the stakes were definitely raised in the second act, and they became higher and higher culminating in a fun and bizarre conclusion that definitely ends the show on the high.
Having not seen the original film, I was worried that some references would go right over my head, and perhaps that’s why I struggled to connect the whole time. I could tell some people responded well to the play and I have no doubt that those on stage had a really fun evening out because it does provide a unique theatrical experience. However, sat in the stalls I sometimes felt like there was a private joke I was missing out on. I’m sure fans of the film will have a great time, but despite its style and energy, I have to admit I was left a little confused and alienated by the whole thing.
Reviewed by Tobias Graham
Photography by Claire Bilyard
Night of the Living Dead Live!
Pleasance Theatre until 19th May
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: