Review: Rapunzel at Chickenshed

If you thought Rapunzel was the story of a girl sitting in a tower waiting for a handsome prince to rescue her – think again. Chickenshed’s ambitious and heartwarming version of the well-known fairy tale is notable not only for its conspicuous lack of princes, but also for a heroine who more than knows how to take care of herself and the people she cares about. Nor is the story all about Rapunzel; we spend just as much time discovering the magical world in which she lives, and following her parents as they search ceaselessly and with unwavering – and ultimately rewarded – hope for their stolen child.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

The story, written and directed by Lou Stein, begins in the attic of a house on the outskirts of London, where six children and their childminder Hazel fall asleep while reading stories. They’re spirited away into Hazel’s dream, in which she’s Rapunzel and has been locked in a tower by Gothel the Witch. These leaves her young charges alone in the woods, where they encounter many magical creatures, among them dryads, underground gnomes and hinky punks. Meanwhile, the Kind Kingdom ruled by Rapunzel’s parents is populated by artisans, royal servants, urchins and more.

When all these groups come together on stage in one of Dave Carey’s rousing ensemble musical numbers, it’s a pretty awesome sight. The total cast for the production numbers 800 (with four rotating teams taking their turn at different performances) and brilliantly showcases Chickenshed’s mission to create inclusive theatre. This show has a role for everyone, and though this means the story at times gets a bit confusing, the overwhelming enthusiasm from all involved is far more joyous to watch than a simpler plot or a smaller, more polished cast would be.

Which is not to say there isn’t a considerable amount of talent on display. Cerys Lambert is a feisty Rapunzel with a beautiful singing voice; Philip Rothery nails the physical comedy in his role as Henry the clumsy woodsman; and Gemilla Shamruk steals the show at the end of Act 1 with Gothel’s dramatic solo number, Don’t Mess With Me. The show also features signing throughout, incorporated seamlessly into the performance of Loren Jacobs and Belinda McGuirk as dryads, and a fantastic band tucked away at the back of the stage.

Photo credit: Daniel Beacock

Nor is it accurate to say this production isn’t polished – managing a fairly complicated plot whilst getting that many children on and off stage with a minimum of fuss is no easy task, yet somehow everyone always ends up in the right place at the right time. This is in no small part thanks to Lucy Sierra’s brilliantly inventive set, which is riddled with secret trap doors, balconies and hidden tunnels, allowing multiple ways in and out so that the action can always keep flowing.

The show is advertised as “Rapunzel as you’ve never seen her before!” and this production certainly delivers on that promise. Along with a magically entertaining story, enjoyable solo performances and toe-tapping tunes, this version sends us away with three particularly powerful messages: look out for each other, don’t fight, and never give up hope. Most importantly, it’s all performed by a passionate, diverse cast whose joy is infectious and truly uplifting. This was my first visit to Chickenshed – and I hope it won’t be the last.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Catherine Lomax, Gordon Craig Theatre

It’s nearly Easter, and at the Gordon Craig Theatre in Stevenage that means one thing: a new family musical. This year, it’s a fresh take on classic fairy tale Rapunzel, featuring original songs and brand new characters created by Catherine Lomax, Phil Dennis and Khiley Williams – and it’s proved so popular that extra dates have already been added for later in the year.

Rapunzel was one of my favourite stories when I was a little girl, so following the success of last year’s Easter Musical, Alice in Wonderland, we knew we wanted to select another literary classic or fairy tale, and Rapunzel instantly came to mind,” says Catherine, who’s also directing the show.

Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre
Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre

“Everyone knows the basic story of Rapunzel but Phil, Khiley and myself loved the idea that we would have freedom to create a whole host of characters to develop the story. We all read as many different versions of the fairy tale as we possibly could and then discussed what we loved the most; we were really keen on creating a production that appealed to children but also entertained parents and adults, and I don’t doubt that’s what we have created. The story may be a classic fairy tale, but we’ve created characters with lots of one liners for the parents so that they can enjoy their trip to the theatre just as much as their children!”

The show tells the story of Sophia and Karl, who are desperate for a child of their own. “One night Karl breaks into Gothel’s garden looking for a herb that will help his wife fall pregnant,” explains Catherine. “Gothel discovers Karl and agrees to help him but on one condition – Gothel must be given the child when she turns sixteen years old! Desperate Karl agrees to the demand and so on his daughter’s sixteenth birthday, when Gothel arrives to stake her claim, Karl and Sophia are powerless to defeat her.

“Two years pass with Rapunzel locked away in a tower, with only a bird, Viktor, for company. Despite using her imagination to create adventures in her head, Rapunzel longs to be outside having adventures of her own. Fortunately Prince Freddie overhears her singing and discovers her trapped in her tower, but can he –  and true love – save the day?”

Catherine’s loved joining forces with Phil Dennis and Khiley Williams again: “We’ve all worked together as creative teams on various musicals and pantos over the last five years. It’s quite a privilege to work with your best friends and create something you are truly proud of.”

She’s also more than a little excited to be working with the show’s recently announced cast. “Samantha Noel will be playing Rapunzel; she has a fantastic voice and a real warmth and friendliness that definitely comes across on stage. She is the perfect Rapunzel and we all fell in love with her at the audition. Craig Armstrong and Cameron Leigh are two of the most versatile performers who have both worked at the GCT before, they’re back for Rapunzel and I don’t doubt that their larger than life characters will make this show sensational!”

Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre
Photo credit: Gordon Craig Theatre

Catherine’s been resident director and producer at the Gordon Craig for seven years, having moved into the role after running her own touring production company. “I think the Gordon Craig is unbelievably special because of the people who work here. Our backstage crew are fantastic, they will explore every option possible to make sure all of our shows are the very best they can be. The FOH teams, Box Office, Marketing department and all of the teams really get behind all our projects.

“And we’re only 20 minutes from Kings Cross, which does mean audiences can just as easily travel to shows in the West End – but it also means we get some fabulous stars who discover the Gordon Craig is really commutable.”

The Easter run of Rapunzel at the Gordon Craig Theatre has already sold out, but tickets are now on sale for additional dates 27th-30th July. Get them while you can…