Music and lyrics: John Robinson
Book: Phil Willmott
Director: Sasha Regan
Judged alongside DH Lawrence’s greatest novels, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is commonly seen as more notorious than notable. Emerging victorious from a famous 1960 obscenity trial, the title became synonymous with sexually explicit material, but the passing of more than 60 years has inevitably diminished the novel’s power to titillate and left behind a rather thin love story that highlights class divides in England at the beginning of the 20th Century.
This musical adaptation of Lawrence’s 1928 work was staged originally at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre in 2020 and that production has now been filmed for streaming. Recordings of stage shows, hybrids that are neither live theatre nor proper films, became more familiar during the pandemic, but there can be an awkwardness about them which is not entirely overcome here. This recording needs to be viewed as of a show in transition, its eventual destination being possibly a return to theatre or re-emergence as a fully-developed film.
Writer Phil Willmott takes considerable licence in adapting the novel’s story of Constance, the newlywed Lady Chatterley, whose husband Sir Clifford becomes crippled while serving as an officer in World War I; his subordinate, Oliver Mellors, now works as the gamekeeper on his estate and Contance, frustrated by Clifford’s incapacity, begins a passionate affair with him. Willmott jettisons most of the eroticism which characterises the novel to the extent that few could argue with this being described as “a family show”.
Willmott’s approach results in the sacrifice of Lawrence’s key themes contrasting physical and emotional love, but it allows a stronger focus on social injustices. Eloquent diatribes against the English class system and the plight of mining communities would have warmed the novelist’s heart. John Robinson’s lyrics rarely rise above the functional, but his soaring melodies orchestrated by Bjorn Dobbelaere and sung powerfully, by the entire company, give the show memorable highlights.
The two central performances are superb. Georgia Lennon brings out Constance’s joy at discovering that there is hope beyond the confinement that her social standing and unhappy marriage has placed her in. Michael Pickering’s Mellors is proud and determined to succeed on his own terms, but overwhelmed by his growing affection for Her Ladyship. Sam Kipling’s bitter and frustrated Clifford contrasts sharply with Jake Halsey-Jones’ Tommy, his flamboyant gay friend who comes closest to providing the touches of light comedy that most successful dramatic musicals need. Emma Lindars is a formidable presence as Clifford’s nurse and Zoe Rogers gives dignity to the character of Hilda, a lowly serving girl.
Andrew Exeter’s two-level set is used cleverly by director Sasha Regan to emphasise class divisions in a production that is generally slick and engaging. Going forward, the show needs more variations in tone, particularly with regard to the music, but, seen as a sneak preview of a work in progress, this recording points towards a possible future hit.
Streaming here from 15 October to 21 November 2021