IDENTICAL Nottingham Playhouse

 STARRY SISTERHOOD IN OLD VIENNA

     Identical twin girls, separated at birth in their parents divorce, meet at summer camp and resolve to swop places.   Remember  “The Parent Trap” film, the 1998 remake or  Hayley Mills 1961 romp?  Forget both.  Both were heavily Americanized versions of a novel by Erich Kastner,  written twenty years after his more famous Emil and the Detectives, on the far side of wartime separations and losses. The jolly US versions transformed  the girls into modern teenagers who with artful mischief plot to reunite their parents.  But Kastner’s Lottie and Lisa are only ten: their delight in unsuspected sisterhood and  yearnings for a never-known parent are the same, but they are little children,  powerless beyond the daring substitution. They’re not aiming to fool the parents but in each case to meet them.   And the happy resolution is brought about by illness, not plotting.  

    There’s comedy in the situations – one child baffling her affluent composer father by suddenly being able to play the piano,  the other confusing the hardworking single mother by turning out to like camping and having  forgotten how to cook. But there is a hint of real trauma in the book too, the outrage of separation  acknowledged here in one child’s frightening nightmare of a witch forcing the newborns apart. 

    It is this original postwar Germany and Austria into which Stuart Paterson’s adaptation takes us in a fresh, bouncy Stiles and Drewe musical.  Auditions of hundred pairs of identical twins found three:  on press night Eden and Emme Patrick proved faultless in a complicated, sometimes emotionally intense performance, first disliking one another on sight and then rapturously realizing their sisterhood; they are playfully natural and assured, rarely offstage for long.  And the head spins at the thought that Nunn has had to rehearse not two but six children through the complications.  

   For the execution is state-of-the-art modern: on sliding, morphing flats and drops come some of the most arresting, fabulously detailed projections I have ever seen – set, Robert Jones, design Douglas O’Connell, take a bow, both.  Trevor Nunn’s fast-moving, filmic direction can therefore take us in moments  from a summer lakeside, trees waving, to the streets of Munich ,  the Vienna opera house frontstage and back, a ballroom, a mountain and at one point the nightmare.   Sometimes, as each little girl finds her way into a new household there is a split-screen version. Every  aspect of the production breathes skill, cost, concentration and care.  

     And risk.  It’s a good-hearted, family-friendly show – and moves on to the Lowry and probably elsewhere, I think it will last – but any new musical trembles on the brink. In the first minutes, as a jolly camp leader (Ellie Nunn) leads a big child ensemble boosted by  local recruits,  there is a bit of a retro school-play feeling: bouncy so-what tunes,   I did wonder at the effort. 

     But it grows.  The twins – rapidly working out why they have the same face and birthdate – draw you in to their gleeful private world.  Their singing is flawless too, alone or with the adults, and as the show goes on Stiles & Drew pull out some lovely numbers.  Emily Tierney as the mother has a beautiful reminiscent song about her teenage marriage and estrangement,  with a haunting, constant repetition  “we were young..”.  We don’t get quite enough of the men in voice ,though Michael Smith-Stewart’s Dr Strobl has a couple of welcome baritone moments,  and James Darch’s Johan as the vain composer works brilliantly alongside his daughter “Making it up as we go along” at the piano, and  there’s a fabulously furious quarrelling encounter between the child and Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as the vampy ballerina who wants to marry Johan.   (she can do the ballet bit, too).

      By the time the four finally meet, there’s a real emotional hit as they discover that a litle tune the musical twin made up fits, exactly, with the words of a simple poem by the other.  Tierney and Darch stand speechless, astonished for a moment in the grand Viennese drawing-room.   A sigh goes through the audience.  

Box office nottinghamplayhouse.org.uk to 14 August. Then Lowry, Salford to 3 Sept

Rating. 4.

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