Valley of Song is the last musical written by Ivor Novello; although left unfinished at the time of his death, it was completed by his collaborators Christopher Hassall and Ronald Hammer. Despite being performed numerously by amateur companies, this production at the Finborough Theatre marks its professional debut.
We quickly meet the cheerful store owner, Mrs Brewster (a good leading performance from Sandy Walsh), and her staff, who are all living happily in the Welsh valleys in the so-called ‘pre-war optimism’, a concept which seemed to pass over me a bit.
The heroine of the piece is Lily (Katy Treharne), a gifted soprano who has young choir master David completely besotted. However, the valleys are just not enough for Lily. She dreams of seeing the world and hey presto, just such an opportunity should arise as Mrs Brewster decides to retire to Venice. Lily accompanies her to follow her dream of becoming a singer and falls straight into the arms of a handsome yet decidedly dodgy count.
What was occasionally lacking in acting skill was made up for in singing, which was absolutely beautiful, despite the fact that some parts needed more sensitivity for the very intimately-sized theatre. The harmonies were lovely and there were standout singing performances from Amira Matthews and Linford Hydes.
Many of the songs were engaging – ‘Heart of the Melody’, ‘Soldier Lad’ and ‘I Know a Valley’ all stood out. However, there were no ‘big numbers’ that you would expect from a musical, despite the fact that some of the songs clearly screamed for more ambitious choreography – the witty female number ‘Where Do We Go From There’ for example. Many moments could have been hilarious under more creative direction.
The problem was, I felt, that each actor seemed to be performing in a slightly different play. Some played it straight and naturalistically, while some in more comedic and cartoonish style. The majority of these performances were good, but this was somewhat lost in a distinct lack of unity. You weren’t really sure what you were watching. My overwhelming feeling was that it was meant to be a serious story, but the plot did not have enough backbone for this – it ground on with a dull predictability. In my opinion, it would have been better off in the light-hearted musical vein, with more creative use of the tiny space.
The set leaves much to be desired. While the costumes are fittingly period and the lighting and ambience spot on, this is all rather marred by the oddly modern backdrop, which was not improved by the descending of a huge Italian flag to symbolise Venice in Act Two. It was all just a bit out of kilter. When you’re watching a show and find yourself thinking, ‘Gosh, what a challenge it is to get everyone on and off this stage for that dance routine’, you realise it’s not quite hitting the mark.
A Valley of Song is playing at Finborough Theatre until 24 January. For more information and tickets, see the Finborough Theatre website.