How do you invent a new fairytale and a new musical? Both are closed circles in which it is hard to earn a good reception for something new, and both genres thrive from the revival of favorites. Their audiences are willing to watch and listen despite knowing every plot twist and every song, seeking out both genres for that sense of familiarity. To create something new with The Clockmaker’s Daughter, writers Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn tried to define exactly what a fairytale meant for them. They wanted a new fairytale with all the trappings of the traditional form (such as the magic, the supernatural elements and the moral core), but the freedom to explore these tropes on their own terms.
Webborn and Finn, however, also felt the need to provide their fairytale with the credence of a history. The Clockmaker’s Daughter opens and closes with the company in contemporary dress, at the annual ‘Turning of the Key’ ceremony in the fictional Irish town of Spindlewood. Every year, on the last night of winter, the town gathers to watch the key turned in the statue of a young girl. That statue, named Constance, has stood in the square for generations, and is so lifelike it looks as though it could wake any second. Every year the town turns the key, and every year they wait in vain for Constance to move. How this legend came into existence forms the main part of the narrative. The account is therefore firmly contextualized as a story that has been passed down in Spindlewood from parent to child, and will continue to be told. The show’s by-line states that ‘we are measured by our time’, and this is the measure by which the writers establish the validity of their fairytale.
The fairytale taps into many familiar tropes from well-known stories. The statue, Constance, was created by a clockmaker mourning the death of his wife, and Constance has more vitality than her maker anticipated. In this, we see shadows of Pinocchio and Frankenstein. But it is perhaps unsurprising that from taking on the task of creating a new fairytale, Webborn and Finn produce one about what it is to create. The concerns of Abraham, the clockmaker, are the concerns of anyone who has ever made anything (be it a work of art, or even a child). How do you protect your creation from the world beyond your control? How will it be received, will it be understood? The plot also has touches of The Elves and The Shoemaker, and Constance shares Cinderella’s longing for freedom beyond her confines. All fairytales have these themes of death, freedom, creation and love in common. These themes are integral to humanity, and that is the subject that fairytales ultimately seek to teach and explore.
So how do you create a new fairytale? You invent a locality, ground it with a myth passed on through generations, and include the prevalent themes of humanity in its telling. But The Clockmaker’s Daughter is more than this – it is the musical of its fairytale. Through music, its tale is given depth and resonance. The references to Irish folk music lend legitimacy to the story in linking it to a true, rooted community and history. The cast remember they are singing to a select gathering in the Landor Theatre, and do not overpower the studio space with the tide of their collective voices. Instead, it becomes a pleasure to sit so close to a musical. One sees both the grand scale of the chorus numbers and the tiny details of the intimate, emotional scenes.
The chorus songs, particularly the introductory ‘Spindlewood’ and sinister ‘A Town Meeting’, are the greatest successes of the production. It is never clear whether Abraham (Lawrence Carmichael) creates Constance as a daughter or a surrogate for his dead wife. The uncertainty as to the kind of love he feels for her gives a darker edge to the narrative, but his first song (‘You’re Still Here’) could easily clarify the point. Jennifer Harding performs Constance with both humor and emotional power. We care about her fate. That is an absolute necessity for any fairytale or musical of any age.
The Clockmaker’s Daughter is at the Landor Theatre until 4th July