Book: Helen Watts
Music and Lyrics: Eamonn O’Dwyer
Director: Alex Sutton
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Imagine being 16 or 17 and the lead in the world premiere of a brand-new musical at a respected off-West End venue – it’s the stuff of dreams. But thanks to the National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT), 16-year old Hayley Canham and 17-year old George Renshaw have been able to do just that, originating the roles of Katrina Van Fleet and Ichabod Crane in fantastic new version of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow running at The Other Palace as part of the NYMT’s season of new and established work running throughout August.
The small town of Sleepy Hollow is beset by superstition and fear as the Headless Horseman stalks the woods looking for victims. The new schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane, arrives in this inward-facing agricultural community in 1820, immediately turning their world upside down with his Enlightenment thinking and need to question the world. Inspired by his approach, the local tenant farmers begin a battle to buy their own land, while Crane falls in love with the one woman he cannot have. As science and superstition dramatically collide, the Horseman rides again.
Anyone hoping to be terrified by a creepy tale of death and danger won’t really find it in this adaptation of Washington Irvine’s short story. But while the spooky headless rider may be consigned to the background, Watts and O’Dwyer have created a much more interesting proposition, weaving their story around the interconnecting lives, fortunes and beliefs that reveal a community on the cusp of old and new. In Director Alex Sutton’s complex and multi-layered production change is in the air from the start, propelling the drama as traditional fights against the beneficial modernity that Crane offers to everyone.
And it is easy to understand their trepidation as tensions rear between tenants and landlords, parents and children, and within individuals as they simultaneously face the prospect of endless drudgery but cling to the hope of something special in their future. It may be a classic story, but Watts and O’Dwyer put landlord’s daughter Katrina Van Fleet at the heart of the drama and central to the plot’s resolution. She becomes more than just a prize to be won, but a female lead with agency, intelligence and courage that instantly makes you root for her.
O’Dwyer’s music is equally engaging and, largely sung-through, transports the audience easily between locations, giving almost equal weight to the tenant farmers as to the central lovers. The songs move the story along taking us from Act One highlights including The Devil Never Rests set in the church as the town anticipate Crane’s arrival while sneering at one another, to Poor Little Tom and The New England Primer in which the younger members of the company sing their lessons.
If The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has a fault, it’s perhaps that we almost forget about the Headless Horseman completely. There are 19 songs in Act One and a further 15 in Act Two, some of which, enjoyable and rich though they are, are superfluous to the core plot and take the run-time to two and half hours. A whole song devoted to the reading of will, as well as many minutes given over to the other mysterious tales from the town are enjoyable, if not absolutely vital.
Leads Canham and Renshaw are a delight, creating a love story that you can invest in, and characters whose motives and behaviours feel entirely credible. Crane’s attachment to science and proof and his belief in knowledge is clearly conveyed, while Canham makes Katrina increasingly central to her own story, refusing to obey the confines of society. The wider supporting cast with an age range of 12-20-years old is full of talent, while the eight accomplished NYMT musicians deliver a difficult score in a relatively long show.
This new version of Sleepy Hollow may be less frightening than you might expect, but if you’re hoping to see the Headless Horseman then you won’t be disappointed, with his eventual appearance cleverly and vividly staged. We certainly haven’t seen the last of the mystery rider, but with plenty of prestigious NYMT alumni, we can also expect to see both this wonderful new musical and its talented cast in the future.
Runs Until 25 August | Image: Rob Youngson