The pandemic proved there was a market for streamed online theatre. Still, it felt odd, if rather glamorous, to be welcomed to a plush Soho film screening room to review the latest new musical on the block: Lady Chatterley’s Lover, directed by Sasha Regan. I shan’t dwell on the technology. Suffice to say the experience sits squarely in the as-yet-unnamed place between television, film and live theatre. It’s recorded ‘as-live’ although it has clearly had some post-production fiddling to tidy up a few aspects and, in a move that amused me, this lets Mellors (Michael Pickering) and Lady Constance (Georgia Lennon) sing and kiss simultaneously. When have you seen that trick on stage, eh?
Talking of kissing, this is far from the smutty nudge-nudge book of comic legend. It’s all terribly English and proper. In a move that DH Lawrence fans will no doubt approve of, the class struggle seems to the fore. This is most clearly realised in the set: ‘above and below stairs’ is represented by a stage split horizontally by designer Andrew Exeter. The Chatterley’s manor house is literally and metaphorically built on wooden coal mine props, clearly embodying the graft of the workers. It is by far the cleverest idea in the whole enterprise.
Elsewhere things feel a little heavy going. The book, by Phil Willmott, is functional but perhaps depends too much on expositional speeches, letter writing and narration to be truly gripping. John Robinson’s music does a better job of engaging us. It is richer and more satisfying than some easy sing-a-long choruses we’ve had from other shows lately. Bjorn Dobbelaere deserves a nod for his lush orchestrations too. At times, early in proceedings especially, complex melodies underscore the dialogue giving the action a welcome sense of pace and drama.
Like Willmott’s book though, Robinson’s lyrics tell us a lot without really pulling at the heartstrings. One song explains it is miners who dig out the coal we put in our fireplaces, which can’t come as a startling revelation to many. Critically, the same problem means we never really feel the heartache at the centre of Lawrence’s story. Some might find it all refreshingly direct. It perhaps suits the dour source material, but this reviewer longed for more soul.
The whole story is told with just six characters, and necessary liberties have therefore been taken. The biggest surprise is the introduction of an openly gay political writer, Tommy (Jake Halsey-Jones), who at times seems to be channelling DH Lawrence telling the tale directly. Tommy is a bit of a lefty too and, in the clumsiest of decisions, writes risqué books that — guess what? — risk prosecution for obscenity. It’s an idea that has legs, yes, but it all feels under-developed and, regrettably, his story ultimately ends up in familiar, lazy, ‘gay best friend’ comedy.
None of this detracts from the cast who overcome issues with the writing to truly shine. Singing honours are split evenly between all six who harmonise beautifully in strong choral moments. You get the sense they would be bona fide ‘triple threats’ if there was choreography to handle too. As it is, Regan’s steady direction often leaves them with little to do beyond standing around looking intense and troubled.
So it doesn’t quite all work, but the fact that Lady Chatterley’s Lover exists as a musical is a credit to everyone’s tenacity. It might also prove a tipping point for the West End’s economic future. As absurdly rocketing ticket prices elsewhere continue to shock right-minded audiences, maybe a night in with Mellors and the gang is the answer.
Written by: DH Lawrence
Music and lyrics by: John Robinson
Book by: Phil Willmott
Orchestration by: Bjorn Dobbelaere
Directed by: Sasha Regan
Produced by: GBM PRODUCTIONS LTD
Lady CHatterley’s Lover is available to stream from 15 October until 21 November. Further information and booking via the below link.