Regent's Park doesn't have much in the way of anything vaguely akin to alpine peaks, but there is sufficient foliage to provide an appropriate backdrop to this tale of nuns and nasty Nazis, and a nanny looking after a gaggle of children and falling for their widowed, wealthy father. Moreover, designer Peter McKintosh has added a nice touch to his functional and clever set, by surrounding the acting area and the edges of the auditorium with wild flowers and grasses, suggesting the meadows of the lower slopes of the alps of Austria.
One of the problems that any team face when putting together a version of this enduringly popular show is coping with the powerfully dominant shadow that is still cast by the hugely successful film which first hit the big screen way back in 1965 - hard to imagine that it is almost 50 years old now. But Julie Andrews' portrayal of the singing, guitar-playing postulant Maria, and Christopher Plummer's performance as Captain Von Trapp still set the benchmarks for these two much-loved characters.
Though the 'Sound of Music' has a compelling storyline, engaging characters and one of the most hummable and memorable scores in the genre, it is nevertheless quite hard to define exactly why 'The Sound of Music' is still such a hit with audiences. But a hit it remains, and if the audience reaction on the night that I saw this revival is anything to go by, it continues to have immense pulling-power and right across the audience spectrum from pre-teens right through to seniors.
Rachel Kavanaugh's production could hardly be described as a radical reworking of the concept, and that approach seems apt and appropriate given the popularity of the piece and audience expectations. What it is intended to do is to allow the story and characters to work their magic, which they do quite perfectly. A circular set manages to provide all of the various locations ranging from abbey to concert hall, with scene changes largely marked by additional furniture and a very neat trick of changing the entrance at the rear of the stage, for example by swapping gates for doors and the like. And, of course, the compulsory staircase for the kids to climb during the party scene is elegantly incorporated, doubling-up as the mountainous escape route for the von Trapp family at the end of their triumphal concert. Ms Kavanaugh has rejected any option to provide an alternative like the tilting pancake mountain I saw in Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of the show back in 2006.
I hope that on some occasion in the not-too-distant future, a director might take the risk of opting to cast a Maria with dark hair. But no such luck here – Charlotte Wakefield's Maria remains the blonde we seem to be stuck with, even if the original Maria von Trapp appeared to be a brunette (at least on my reading of the photographic evidence). Still, Miss Wakefield is bright and bubbly, full of life and energy and earnest. Miss Wakefield first appears singing her opening number from an odd location which causes a little confusion and much head-turning among the audience, but we get all the essential character traits of the Maria we have come to expect. Michael Xavier provides a powerful singing voice for Captain von Trapp, the naval commander who runs his household like a naval vessel. Mr Xavier's tall frame certainly lends authority to the role, but as with other von Trapp's before him, I found him a little too stiff and unbending at times. However, he provides a very poignant moment in the proceedings when he hears his children sing, and he realises they need his love and affection rather more than his perpetual whistling.
As with most productions involving children, there are three teams of young actors who rotate the roles – only the eldest von Trapp daughter, Liesl is played by the same actor, Faye Brookes. The children here are brilliantly drilled, enormously talented and brave and, especially the smallest ones, are quintessentially cute. In the support department, Helen Hobson produces a very fine and emotionally powerful rendition of 'Climb Every Mountain', and Michael Matus provides rather more humour than I have seen before as the opportunistic impresario Max Detweiler.
Rather than battling against the film version by trying to redefine the 'Sound of Music', Rachel Kavanaugh's production sensibly gives us what most of us would seem to want. The result is enormously enjoyable, even if many of us have seen it all (many times) before.
"This new production in the idyllic surroundings of Regent’s Park is the finest I have ever seen."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Rachel Kavanaugh's revival rightly plays up the story's politics: the only trick she misses, unlike Jeremy Sams's superb 2006 Palladium production, is in not fully showing how tensions between collaborators and anti-fascists infect a party thrown by the captain on the eve of the 1938 Anschluss. But everything else about the show feels right."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Rachel Kavanaugh’s buoyant production is respectful rather than radical, albeit with smart touches of wit and some new musical settings."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"Rachel Kavanaugh's revival offers an admirably warm, straightforward and sincerely felt account of its (at times glutinously) sentimental story of nuns and Nazis and a young postulant who brings singing and love back to the motherless, defensively regimented of a widowed naval Captain."
Paul Taylor for The Independent