For me, the combination of “new musical” and “fairy tale” was a magical one, the kind that gets my expectations really high. I love fairy tales: I read everything by Andrew Lang, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson I could get my hand on as a kid, and as an adult I’ve expanded to Hoffman, Nesbitt, Diana Wynne-Jones and Patricia McKillip. Fairy tales make me feel happy: they have beautiful imagery, tropes that can be worked with or against, and frequently moral outcomes that leave you in tears. So when I received an invitation to the opening night of Daniel Finn and Michael Webborn’s newly created show, The Clockmaker’s Daughter (at the very conveniently located Landor pub theater), I was panting to go.
In construction, the story starts off feeling like Coppelia or Pygmalion – clever man makes clockwork doll that comes to life (although I found the relationship of the man to the doll a bit ambiguous – was she intended as his wife-replacement or daughter-that-never-was?) – but ends, rather surprisingly, with a Frankenstein twist. In between, we get a lot of story that sometimes follows the plots of the original – apparently nobody wants a creature they have made, whether their actual child or their clockwork child, to have their own opinions and desires – but then also takes its own turns, the end result being an exceedingly original story that leaves the audience thinking about what it means to be human and how quickly people can turn against someone they decide to label as “other.” We also get lots and lots of songs to move us along – songs about love, not surprisingly, but also about working in a dress shop and aspiring to bust out of the limitations society sets for you. This is true not just for our robot hero Constance (Jennifer Harding), but for her would-be swain Will (Alan McHale), and it’s hard not to root for them to succeed both with making their lives into something that makes them happy and in finding love.
From a set perspective, this is not just one of the most complex but also one of the most evocative constructions I’ve ever seen in the Landor. David Shield has not just made gears and springs for a workshop, but the gewgaws and frippery of a dressmakers shop and a rooftop with a nighttime sky, all done in the most compressed of spaces with a golden door and columns staying in place throughout. Really well done! Unfortunately such good luck was not had in the costuming – it ran the gamut from 1870ish through 1895 (early Gibson girl) and … it’s a horrible thing to get fixated on but hard to avoid since I’m obsessed with late Victorian clothing and this play had so much in it about dresses. I realize they must have been pulled from rental stock, but at the least the tears visible on opening night should be fixed, especially for the man who is supposed to be from a big clothing manufacturers – his trousers were destroyed at the heel and, although it was a small detail, it was so wrong for his character I couldn’t get over it. It was like the box that has a dress in it that is “thrown in a well” (a set piece with a hole in it, also used, when covered, as a table) – for almost half of the first act, every time the “well” appeared I could see that box peeking out of it … talk about ruining the suspension of disbelief! I also was unable to see why the clothes (especially the first dress) that Constance sews were supposed to be so special … just another hour’s effort with maybe some tiny bird and flower figurines might have really put that first dress over the top, and the rest of them, I don’t know, needed to have a more unified “magical” feel to them. And Constance needed to look a tiny bit more mechanical – perhaps a blatantly artificial wig would have done the trick.
In the end, I found this “steampunk fairytale” a rich evening out but not as rewarding as I had hoped – the good singing and palatable melodies still didn’t succeed in sweeping me along the way I hoped (I’m like hummable melodies and the songwriting wasn’t as catchy as I’d like), and my grounding in fairy tales left me fighting against being force fed a 2015 message. But I think lots of people will enjoy it, and in the intimate space of the Landor it’s an overwhelming experience of the kind that makes it hard to keep your critical faculties front and center instead of just sitting back and letting the luscious wall of unmiked sound wash over you. It’s certainly a good evening out and well worth the effort of visiting the Kingdom of the Claphams.
(This review is for an opening night performance that took place on June 1, 2015. It continues through July 4th.)