God, I love the Southwark Playhouse! They always have such talented performers and imaginative productions. And The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is no exception on the performers front. You really can’t fault this cast, everyone in the ensemble is talented, with exceptional singers, dancers and musicians. That being said though, somehow the show feels like it hasn’t quite got the balance right between content and form.
Goethe’s poem of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was famously enacted in the Disney movie Fantasia, with Mickey Mouse and a lot of mops making something of a mess. The plot of this production takes that idea of an inexperienced youth eager to practise, and combines it loosely with another Goethe story, in which the Aurora provides the power of magic and healing. Link that with modern day global warming and we have a message that carelessly exploiting the Earth’s power to feed consumerism and greed endangers the very thing that supports us. Next, pop it all in a musical format and you basically have Greta Thunberg meets the Disney Corporation. It’s a worthy stance, but it comes across just a little heavily in this family-framed entertainment.
For me, the serious issues woven in don’t really equate with the proposed dramatic form. We have teenage angst, a single parent and world destruction counterpointed with a villain from a melodrama. It’s a shame the characterisation is so polar. Marc Pickering as Fabian is flawless in what he does, adding impeccable comic relief, but the character itself is a cartoon, so there’s no peril, which should definitely be a thing if the Earth is in danger. Eva (Mary Moore) and her dad (David Thaxton) are played with great energy and talent, but they spend a lot of time getting cross then forgiving each other, meaning she often comes across as bratty rather than likeable, whilst he is grumpy rather than principled. They break up, they make up. It’s all a bit binary.
Against this backdrop, the song styles swing widely from epic Les Mis heartbreak to Dickensian sentimental, with a bit of Mary Poppins in the middle. Thankfully the band are fantastic, sometimes managing to even conquer the distancing effect of streaming, simulating a real theatre experience. Kudos as well to choreographer Steven Harris, who creates some incredibly sharp dance, despite being challenged with styles ranging from ethereal floating to Dick Van Dyke.
It’s a play about magic so it should feel dazzling. There are moments where the tricks and illusions are indeed fun, but it’s not exactly Penn & Teller. I suspect, however, a live stage performance would help correct this. The whole titular broom thing seems to graft enchantment unconvincingly to the worthy plotline. Why would brooms turn into a big head anyway?
On a serious point, I’d urge caution with the ‘family-friendly’ label on this production, as some of the language is unsuitable. The term “gobshite” is actually offensive, whilst aggressively shouted instances of “bloody” are unnecessarily harsh in this context. Additionally, insulting someone for being an educated southerner is prejudiced. Edit it out.
What can I say? The production has an impeccable cast, astonishing band, brilliant dancing. Unfortunately some fundamental issues need rebalancing if it’s going to sit comfortably with its family show label.
Book & Lyrics by: Richard Hough
Music by: Ben Morales Frost
Directed by: Charlotte Westenra
Musical Direction by: Alan Williams
Choreography by: Steven Harris
Puppetry Direction by: Scarlet Wilderink
Produced by: James Seabright
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is available to stream until 14 March, with shows at 2.30 and 7pm. Check Southwark Playhouse website for full details.