Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle has been beloved by the nation since its publication in 1948, and this new musical adaptation drew a pleasing mixture of the young and the elderly to the Playhouse, a testament to the story’s appeal. This version captures much of the humour of Dodie Smith’s novel, if in a rather rose-tinted way, glamorizing the grotty lives of the eccentric Mortmains, who inhabit a derelict castle in the countryside. With a failed writer, James, as a father (Ben Watson), and a nudist model, Topaz (Suzanne Ahmet), for a stepmother, there is little amusement to be had for the two daughters, the pert Rose (Kate Batter) and the bookish Cassandra (Lowrie Izzard). Both long for cash, romance and rescue, and when two rich American brothers descend on the castle on a stormy night, Rose endeavours to marry the elder.
A beautifully higgeldepiggledy set made of ladders and chairs against a Turner-esque backdrop immediately launches us into their crumbling home. The staging is ingenious in places, with deft movements between the three levels of set and some lovely choreography. There are also shimmers of absurdity: the masked man in a grey romper perched atop the upper level is revealed to be the castle’s gargoyle. This is a true Dodie Smith-esque touch, and while it was one of several, I longed for more of these moments.
Although the ensemble was made up of accomplished singers, the characterisation was sometimes lacking. Ahmet’s Topaz was committed, but she was more sultry than ethereal, and the brothers were not expanded beyond their dullard one dimensionality. Accents were patchy in places, a problem particularly pertaining to Isaac Stanmore’s Stephen, the Mortmain’s unpaid janitor, who attempted a confusing sounding West Country accent which detracted from his sympathetic and sensitive portrayal. The epitome of this clumsiness however was Watson’s James, who thundered about, all bluster and no charm, his chin perpetually jutting. The paternal genius of the novel was turned into an overbearing tyrant, devoid of all the drollness that makes him so interesting. This caricature made some plot points less believable, and made me question much of the desire that the story explores: Topaz’s heart-breaking longing to be loved by this man, Mrs Cotton’s interest in him, and his daughters’ affection. Strong exceptions to this were Julia St John and Shona White, who nailed the acerbic Mrs Cotton and the acid tongued Leda, shrewd relatives of the brothers. Additionally, the sisters’ dynamic was strong, and their heady excitement and their mutual affection was portrayed with aplomb. Izzard was a fine Cassandra, always delightful but never too wholesome: her unfailing sweetness was a guiding light of this production.
The music pleasingly channelled the 30s; pastiches of Cole Porter and Gershwin were supported by enjoyable dance routines to match. Though occasionally deft, the lyrics often tended towards the banal, including key clunkers such as ‘I like your arty dresses and all their silky caresses’, supplemented by some hackneyed dialogue. I wondered how relevant some songs were to the plot or character’s motivations, and to what extent they were shoehorned in to fill space. Unfortunately some musical skits that were initially amusing would linger too long, making the action sag despite the admirable attempts of the cast. Twee numbers on peach coloured towels and the rain, for example, appeared entirely unnecessary. The costumes were glorious, however, from the drips and drabs of green that coloured the Mortmains, with frills and frump galore, to the sleek luxury of the Americans. Rose’s descent down the stairs in a frighteningly old-fashioned crinoline was hilarious, demonstrating her poor attempts at coquettishness (although the script chose to omit some of the finer gags of the novel). An understandable compression of plot meant that poignant moments of the novel were often merely nodded at, excising the character of the precocious younger Mortmain brother entirely. One key action of the story became entirely garbled: Cassandra’s attempt to rid her father of writer’s block by locking him in a tower and forcing him to write became absurd, when it was clear he lacked the necessary implements to do so.
The play didn’t quite live up to its denouement. The ending rushed to tie up loose ends, and though I was grateful for the feminist kick which emphasised Cassandra’s choice to write, it didn’t stand true considering the production skated over much of her desire to be a great author, emphasising her sentimentality instead. That being said, there is some sensitive and witty direction here, with an eye to the whimsical. For all its flaws, I Capture the Castle is a lovely, often tender show. It’s a particular joy to see Izzard bring Cassandra, that wonderful literary figure, to aching life. For what it lacks in depth, this production makes up with warmth.