The National Youth Music Theatre do a mighty fine job of eerily atmospheric new musical The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at The Other Palace
“Mr Crane says…”
Everyone loves a good horror story right? Which is partly why folktale The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has endured so long, haunting us in various iterations since Washington Irving first published it in 1820. And it has now been turned into a new musical by Helen Watts (book) and Eamonn O’Dwyer (music & lyrics) at the behest of the National Youth Music Theatre, who are performing it for a short run as part of their residency at The Other Palace.
In the New England town of Sleepy Hollow, myths and mysteries abound but the arrival of a new schoolteacher in 1833 takes an even stranger turn. Ichabod Crane is like a breath of cold fresh air, not necessarily fully appreciated by everyone as he sets about dragging the local schoolkids into the Enlightenment single-handedly, disrupting the social order with notions of land ownership, and flirting with engaged women. But not even his rational mind is fully prepared for the eerie strangeness that follows.
For it is not just angry fiancés and disgruntled parents he’s got to deal with, but the wailing banshees and headless horsemen of the townsfolk’s stories feel like they’re somehow lurking in the shadows, danger seemingly lying in every jack o’lantern that adorns the place. Watts’ book captures this febrile atmosphere very well and if O’Dwyer’s score perhaps lacks a little geographic specificity, it is also extremely tuneful and very easy to listen to. As a historical drama set in a rural community, hints of Howard Goodall’s The Hired Man come through, especially in bawdy drinking songs and tales of hard manual labour. As a folkloric and slightly fantastical tale, Webborn and Finn’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter also comes to mind.
But Sleepy Hollow is decidedly funnier – the musical numbers where the schoolkids show Crane what they learned under their previous teacher are hilarious – and darker, as it leans into the horror story that underpins the legend. The decision to leave much unexplained works in the show’s favour as though it becomes increasingly apparent that something nefarious really is in the air in New England, the fact that we don’t know whether it is supernatural or human makes it genuinely creepier.
An assured set of performances do credit to the work of the NYMT. 17 year old George Renshaw as Ichabod Crane is an effective, charismatic and beautifully voiced figure as he divides opinion of those around him, Jade Oswald’s ethereal Sabine sounds gorgeous, and Joe Usher and Hayley Canham both offer fully rounded characterisations as the troubled engaged couple Brom and Katrina. I also enjoyed John Prowse having much fun as the stick-in-the-mud Father Abram.
Credit too to Alex Sutton’s brilliant direction, which marshals his resources expertly. From the louring sky that dominates the backdrop to the swishing cloaks used so effectively by the ensemble, no opportunity is lost to build up the foreboding atmosphere. Rebecca Brower’s box-based design is ingenious in its endless flexibility and Christopher Nairne’s lighting is moodily pitch-perfect as MD Charlie Ingles’ guides the rushes of swooping strings and haunting woodwind melody lines that characterise this atmospheric new musical.