The Go-Between, Apollo Theatre, London ★★★

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LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between tells the story of Leo, a young boy who finds himself caught up in the affair between his schoolfriend’s sister and a local farm hand. But it is about more than that: narrated by the older Leo as he reads his thirteen-year-old self’s diary, it is as much about reclaiming and coming to terms with one’s own past. For the older Leo, the past is indeed a foreign country, the exploration of which is tentative and dangerous.

And David Wood’s stage adaptation of that story captures a lot of that, distilling the novel’s content into a beautiful stage version with the same deftness that characterised his adaptation of Goodnight Mister Tom. As Michael Crawford’s older Leo removes artefacts from an old trunk – artefacts that include his younger self, packed away and hidden for decades – it reveals a history to him, the rest of the cast appearing around the set of a decaying country house in cream and off-white costumes as if ghosts released from the pages of his diary.

The release of memory allows the story to unfold in occasionally interesting ways, especially in the recollection of a cricket match in which the younger Leo takes an important part. His older counterpart first remembers the celebrations of the win, then the congratulations offered to him at the end of the match, then the match itself – each recollection spinning backwards in time, unfolding in a non-linear fashion that is more interesting than the more straightforward flashbacks which form the bulk of the play’s narrative.

But this is not just a play, but is a musical, or at least is billed as such. What it really is one or two songs in the whole evening, the rest of time having dialogue sung rather than spoken, underscored by noodling on an onstage piano, the only musical instrument involved. I really enjoyed composer Richard Taylor’s Whistle Down the Wind, and have heard good things about the recent Flowers for Mrs Harris, which recently premiered at Sheffield Theatres. But here, I find his compositions detract from the storytelling rather than enhance it, slowing down an already contemplative pace. The choice to rely on just a piano for accompaniment also denies an element of variety that the scoring sorely misses.

And that’s a shame, because otherwise there is much to enjoy. The two young performers – young Leo and his friend Marcus (played in the performance I saw, I believe, by William Thompson and Archie Stevens) both deliver great performances, fuelled by the care for young actors that one would expect in a David Wood script. Gemma Sutton and Stuart Ward as Marian and Ted, the lovers who come to rely on Leo as a ‘postman’ for their illicit letters, make for charming sinners. And while Issy Van Randwyck is rather warmer as matriarch Mrs Maudsley than the source material would generally indicate, the steeliness that emerges by the story’s end feels in character. The cast in general are very good indeed, and Roger Haines’s direction, save for a couple of scenes that mistake “cast walking from side to side” as a metaphor for busy-ness, often finds an expressiveness in its impressionism that enhance the story (a rare exception being the fumbled conclusion to Marian and Ted’s affair, which is unclear until the characters start talking about what happened).

And then there’s Michael Crawford. Now in his 70s, his voice may not be in the shape it was when he originated the title role of Phantom of the Opera, but it has acquired a patina that befits the character of the old, damaged Leo. His presence certainly adds a level of interest to this production which it might otherwise not have – certainly, it was what inspired me to buy a ticket to see the show. But whether there is enough to support this musical as and when he moves on to other things – I doubt it.

The Go-Between continues at the Apollo Theatre.

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