Holy moly! This all-singing adaptation of William Horwood's fantasy novel about warrior moles is better than you might think
Translating fantasy from the page to the stage can be tricky: the loss of that all-encompassing novelistic voice inside a reader’s head isn’t always kind on the storytelling. Particularly, perhaps, when it comes to an epic conflict between moles.
You have to admire the sheer chutzpah of this new musical, adapted by James Peries from William Horwood’s bestselling novel, with songs by Mark Carroll. It tells the story of young mole Bracken’s war against a group – led by the tyrannical Mandrake – that is determined to destroy the old ways of Duncton Wood.
It’s often dark stuff, notably the murder of Mandrake’s daughter Rebecca’s first litter. There’s a lot going on, but Peries carves a decent route through the novel’s narrative. And Michael Strassen’s inventive staging helps us keep track of what’s happening, and where, in the mole colony’s subterranean world.
Probably wisely, the production chooses to gesture at mole-ness through performance and the occasional flare of a Freddy Krueger claw for the fight scenes, rather than full-on fur and snuffling. There’s a definite ’80s vibe to this production, and the cast certainly don’t shrink from the ‘We Don’t Need Another Hero’ moments – playing these with utter conviction.
But what hampers this show (apart from some unmemorable songs and an ending too indebted to the novel’s bridging status as part of a trilogy) is its overriding earnestness. Oli Reynolds and James Sinclair bring a welcome lightness as squabbling brothers, but the story’s folky mysticism isn’t kindly served by the production’s often stiffly portentous, overwrought tone.