How is your imagination? From the moment Hadley Fraser’s narrator asks the audience to “try to remember”, imagination becomes paramount, as with little in the way of props and set The Fantasticks tells a story of family and love.
The set is little more than a raised, jutting diamond on the Duchess theatre’s stage, framed by two poles. The props barely stretch to a couple of sticks and enough assorted confetti for a summer of weddings. So the audience is forced to use its collective creativity to conjure the world in which the tale is set.
Fraser, dry and irresistibly charismatic, is the storyteller, his warm comforting vocals enveloping the audience at the show’s opening, leaving all assured that we are in safe hands and that, whatever happens over the course of the evening, there is sure to be a happy ending.
What follows is unique; a simple tale of children manipulated by their fathers who build a wall between their gardens in an attempt to make young love seem more attractive by forbidding it. One gets the impression that if mothers had been around, this would have been a very different story. But amid this tale lurks a scenery-creating mute and two clowns – Edward Petherbridge and Paul Hunter – who appear from nowhere to help confuse and dumbfound the lovers.
Romantic musical gives way to a touch of panto as Petherbridge gives his role more quality ham than the deli counter at Waitrose and Hunter delights in performing death scenes that surpass even the legendary work of Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. It is bizarre yet brilliant and steals the show.
Clive Rowe and David Burt – old hands at this musical malarkey – bring a touch of music hall to their double act as the fathers.
The Fantasticks ran for 42 years in New York, where it first opened in 1960. For the most part, you would not know the script had had half a century to mature. Its undercutting, referential wit feels as current as Glee. Its music, however, harks back to classic Broadway, with hints of Porter and Bernstein.
This mixture of old and new, storytelling and clowning, narration and mime may have left some audience members baffled, but with a bit of imagination, an open mind and Petherbridge dressed as a hip hop clown, it might just be a Fantastick treat.