views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Apple Tree
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
15th August 2014

★★★★☆

I don't know about forbidden fruit, apples have never really done it for me. But there's certainly always been a fatal attraction to Walthamstow since first discovering that All Star Productions are resident at Ye Olde Rose and Crown. The company always stages the old musicals - the forgotten and abandoned pieces of work. Chances are, you've heard of Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof, but this production of theirs is a little more obscure. The Apple Tree was first planted on Broadway in 1966, and it hasn't had much professional attention since.

Catriona Mackenzie and Rafe Watts as Eve and Adam

Photography © David Ovenden

The production is divided into three acts - but each part feels like it can stand alone. The first act, The Diary of Adam & Eve, is executed well by director Brendan Matthew but it does have the weakest book. Adapted by Harnick and Bock from Mark Twain's The Diaries of Adam and Eve, it's a pleasant enough but fair gentle comedy. It's suffered somewhat in the ageing process; unlike All Stars' previous It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman (incidentally coming to the Leicester Square Theatre in February) the old-school humour hasn't come full circle yet to become retro. Still, if "a bit twee" is the worst thing you can say, it's not exactly damning.

Adam (Rafe Watts) is frustrated by the new long-haired creature hanging about in the Garden of Eden, who insists on being called by the name Eve (Catriona Mackenzie). She has a habit of naming new things and concepts before he gets a chance, keeps talking to him and trying to spend time with him, something which initially annoys him. Adam is painted as the dumb one, which comes to a head in Fish, Go to Sleep Whatever You Are and the reprise of Fish, with a great deal of humour brought out in those numbers. Granted, it's a little bit mawkish, but it's a harmless enough tale which relies on the popular stereotypes of what makes men different from women.

Mackenzie had a wonderful innocence in Jennifer Skylark and the Seagull's Handbook, which translates well to Eve, trying to figure out her existence through nothing but intuition and dealing with Feelings. The brutality with which Adam pushes Eve around does seem a bit heavy-handed - yes, this is the first Man and everyone knows immature boys show their emotions by pulling on pigtails - but Mackenzie is so slight, it feels like Watts could do her some serious damage at any moment.

Daniel Donskoy as the Snake

Photography © David Ovenden

Matthew, also set designer, creates an enchanting Eden in this act. Ladders are used to represent trees and fruit lies around emphasising the garden's never-ending abundance. Puppet designer Kat Gagan has put together some charming rod-puppets - not the most sophisticated I've seen and Tree Folk Theatre perhaps do this best - but the simplicity captures the innocence of the environment. The rabbit is one of my favourite designs and the use of the tortoise is delightful. If you're sitting house-right, you'll catch a glimpse of this at the beginning of the act, gradually pulled towards the pit until finally it completes its journey halfway though. Little touches like these show a fine attention to detail.

Now, it's not uncommon that we'll spot a fairly decent actor in the Camden Fringe and then see them reappear later on in something even better - think Chloe Ward's transformation from Gap Year to Open House. However, for the wait to be less than a fortnight is a brand new one on us. Given the Phoenix Artist Club suffers quite badly from noise bleed and Daniel Donskoy still managed to make himself heard in Porn Virgins, I was unsurprised that every word of his was the Snake was clear. However, who knew he could sing so beautifully?

In the larger space of the Ye Olde Rose and Crown, it suddenly becomes obvious that Donskoy not only can act and sing, but he's some kind of captivating giant with incredibly slick moves and the kind of charm that can't be taught. This is a man with rhythm and style. Naturally, with this being All Star Productions, I'm gripped enthusiastically from the start, but when Donskoy first comes on stage the quality is ramped up higher than you thought possible.

Rosie Glossop and Luke Wilson as Princess Barbara and Captain Sanjar

Photography © David Ovenden

When the second act begins and we get to see more of Donskoy in The Lady or The Tiger, it becomes apparent that he's not going to steal the spotlight in just one of the acts, but all three. And when choreographer Chris Whittaker inserts a bunch of steps in act two, suddenly it becomes obvious what was missing from The Diary of Adam & Eve - dance. Dance and Donskoy, the perfect combination. Both elements follow through into the third act, which whilst a joy to watch, again highlights the weakness of the initial book.

Costume designer Joana Dias outdoes herself with King Arik (Danny Holmes), styling the performer like Bowie's Jareth the Goblin King. The rest of the cast take on a mild bondage style in this barbarian piece, but it's Arik who stands out clothes-wise. Holmes captures the petulance of the King well, as he sulks about the illicit match between his daughter Princess Barbara (Rosie Glossop) and Captain Sanjar (Luke Wilson). Again, the humour is gentle, but in The Lady or the Tiger, the passing of time is kinder to the writing.

I already knew that Michaela Cartmell had a fabulous pair of lungs on her from The Hatpin (two years ago and just thinking about that production still makes me shiver). In final mini-musical Passionella, she gets her moment in the spotlight as Ella, everyone's favourite movie star slash chimney sweep. It's always difficult to take a pitch perfect voice and manipulate it into something a bit less spot on, but Cartmell adds a touch of crackle as Ella, separating out her numbers as Passionella, the all-new, all-improved, glitzy, glamorous (and superficial) aspect of the character.

Matthew has a lot of fun with Cartmell in Gorgeous, as she revels in her transformation and later attempts to take home a giant cut-out Oscar. Xandy Champken plays opposite Cartmell as Flip Charming, the man of her dreams. Having achieved fame, glory and a loyal following, he's the one that she wants, the one that she wants, ooh, ooh, ooh, honey. With his slicked back hair and leather jacket, Flip is the cool kid who everyone aspires to be or be with. There's a lot of comedy here, whilst at its core it's a piece about craving something out of reach and needing to find happiness in the ordinary. But we only catch a glimpse of this tenderness in the closing duet End of Passionella with Cartmell and Champken.

Daniel Donskoy and Michael Cartmell as the narrator and Ella

Photography © David Ovenden

Quite often the company hide away the orchestra but in this production, the pit is kept visible and it's a joy to catch sight of Aaron Clingham and his musicians. Clingham never fails to deliver. Technically, he's always bang on and leads his team to identical heights of perfection but what makes him a terrific MD is how he always captures the emotion of each note. It's easy to forget about an excellent orchestra when you don't see them - the way the sound fills the air and feels so natural and inherently a part of proceedings, you can almost forget someone has had to create it - but they really deserve to be credited. Alongside Clingham, we hear Ruth Whybrow on reeds, Jade Brightwell and Rose Richardson on violin, Catriona Cooper on viola and Tatiana Judycka on cello. A perfect performance from all of them.

Given the volume of excellent shows that the company crank out, and the slight weakness of the initial book in The Diary of Adam & Eve, this isn't the best show they've ever pulled off. It doesn't have the emotion of Days of Hope, or the laugh-a-minute hilarity of Superman. Yet it is perhaps one of their best performances - there's nothing to fault about the music, the energy or the choreography. It's also a delight to see Donskoy's phenomenal talent showcased and I admit that whilst I spotted he was good, I hadn't quite realised his full potential. Casting director Benjamin Newsome doesn't miss a trick.

As usual, it's impossible not to recommend All Star Productions' latest work - the way that the cast and crew execute The Apple Tree is flawless. Not only are they all talented, but they have bags of style. With the transfer of their Superman musical to Leicester Square Theatre, my previous prediction of them making it big in the West End is getting closer and closer to becoming true. But for now, Walthamstow remains very much a deliciously tempting part of London to visit - you won't find finer musical theatre than this on the fringe circuit.

The Apple Tree opened on 12th August and runs until 30th August 2014 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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