Cecil B DeMille has nothing on Lou Stein, director of Chickenshed. This, his gloriously, joyfully inclusive second Christmas show, works with a cast of 800. Of course they operate in four teams (I enjoyed the work of the Blue Rota on press night) but that’s still a staggering 200 bodies to manage on stage. There are lots of large scale, beautifully choreographed chorus numbers and tableaux vivants which make excellent use of the performance space and Lucy Sierra’s mysterious, cavernous red set. And Andrew Caddies’s lighting ensures that your eye is always drawn to the right spot. It’s an enormous undertaking (“Oh yes, rehearsal schedules are completely mad” Stein tells me cheerfully in the interval) and it comes off with aplomb.
It’s a very original take on the Rapunzel story too. Written by Lou Stein with music by Dave Carey and developed by the cast, it has elements of The Winter’s Tale, The Wind in the Willows and The Wizard of Oz within a completely fresh concept. Hazel (Cerys Lambert) is reading to six children she is looking after. As they fall asleep we are led into a dream sequence in which Hazel becomes Rapunzel and we’re, along with her in her tower, in an enchanted wood complete with hordes of goblins, dryads, hinky punks, spiders and sleep fairies. Meanwhile The King (Michael Bossisse) amd Queen (Sarah Connolly) are searching for their lost daughter and their kingdom includes artisans, royal servants, traders, troubadours and urchins. Yes, this is inclusive diverse “theatre changing lives” with an almost unimaginable number of roles and plenty for everyone to do.
All the cast are Chickenshed members. Some are very young attenders at weekly sessions. Many are teenagers. Several performers are engaged in or have completed one of Chickenshed’s further or higher education programmes and some are on the staff. The diversity, in every sense, is remarkable. And the integrated signing, a Chickenshed trademark – mostly by Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk in this show – is a joy to watch.
Cerys Lambert’s pure singing voice is nearly as golden as her hair and she gets exactly the right blend of feistiness and sweetness. Dave Carey gives her a quasi leitmotif on a descending arpeggio which rings out through the forest even when we can’t see her and that’s effective.
Nathaniel Leigertwood gives a delightfully spiky performance as the cat who is supposed to be looking after (guarding) Rapunzel. He yawns, stretches and moves with terrific litheless. His voice work is spot on and he’s funny.
And there’s an outstanding performance from Gemilla Shamruk as the Witch. She is glitteringly attractive rather than pantomimically villainous. She really makes us think too, in this abuse-alert age about just how sinister are her tactile, possessive demands on Rapunzel’s hair. Her Ella Fitzgerald-like jazz number “Don’t Mess With Me” which ends the first half is a real show stopper.
Meanwhile, accompanying a stageful of enthusiastic, well directed, strong performers is Dave Carey’s nine piece band perched on an upper stage mostly just out of sight. Most of these players, who make a really terrific sound, are Chickenshed members and Carey, such a talented composer, has been on the staff for thirty years.
I doubt that I shall see a more uplifting, spirited, ambitious and successful show this Christmas.