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BWW Review: THE STATIONMASTER, Tristan Bates Theatre, November 4 2015

Musicals can get a bad rap from those who have usually only seen The Sound of Music, once, on television, while bloated on Christmas pud. "Why does everyone burst out singing?" they say - and, sometimes, it can be hard to answer that. But, if one answer is about the sheer joy of hearing toe-tapping tunes - music being as rooted as language in the human brain - the other is about how song can heighten emotions, literally burst out of characters for whom the spoken word just isn't enough. Such is the case in The Stationmaster, a new musical with a book by Susannah Pearse and music and lyrics by Tim Connor, based on Odon von Horvath's play Judgment Day (translated by Christopher Hampton). If that's a bit of a mouthful, think of an episode of "Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected" set to a pounding piano.

It's 1958 in a Lake District village where everyone knows everyone's business and everyone has friends and, well, not quite enemies, but certainly "not friends". Thomas (Nigel Richards, in fine voice) is the eponymous Stationmaster, a pillar of the community so revered that he is afforded its highest honour as judge of the annual cake-baking competition. But all is not well at home, his wife despised by the locals for her eccentricity and (it appears) childless marriage. Thomas's head is turned momentarily by pretty, but flighty, Anna (Emily Bull), who kisses him in a bit of innocent pretend play on the station platform, both more bored than passionate. But small actions can have big consequences - and soon Thomas and Anna have choices to make about right and wrong, choices that also have consequences as their lives unwind.

This is tremendous base material, Horvath's original play being an allegory for the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, but a rattling good yarn too. The not inconsiderable challenge faced by the creatives was to add to it by transforming it into a musical - and I'm delighted to say that I believe they have met that challenge magnificently. As Thomas decends into more and more deceit, the piano (beautifully played by Caroline Humphries) quickens with his fall and the music enhances the claustrophobia we feel as much as the characters.

In a strong ensemble cast, Jessica Sherman is excellent in her work as Catherine, the misfit wife reviled by the complacent men and women of the village, who are led by Annie Wensak's Mrs Deakin, a moster behind a ready smile and a jar of homemade jam. Jon Osbaldeston gives a strong performance as the police inspector who never quite falls for the alibis so happily seized upon by the villagers.

This new musical (at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 15 November) provides a night of grown-up, occasionally uncomfortable, entertainment which, like I once heard said about Brighton Rock, leaves you with a desire to have a shower and wash it away once it's done. It's a mark of the quality of the production that it stings that deeply.

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From This Author Gary Naylor