Identical

Book by Stuart Paterson, based on Erich Kästner’s novel, music by George Stiles and lyrics by Anthony Drewe
Nottingham Playhouse, Kenny Wax Ltd, Gavin Kalin, Playing Field Ltd, Kevin McCollum, Bonnie Comley and Stewart F Lane
The Lowry, Salford

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Emme Patrick and Eden Patrick Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
James Darch, Emily Tierney, Emme Patrick and Eden Patrick Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Ellie Nunn and company Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson and Ensemble Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Rutendo Mushonga, Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson, James Darch, Rico Bakker and Paige Fenlon Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Ensemble Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Erich Kästner’s source novel The Parent Trap has been the basis for two movies and several television specials. Yet the plot of a pair of twins separated in infancy conspiring to re-unite their divorced parents has always been treated as a lightweight piece of entertainment. Trevor Nunn’s musical production balances the wish-fulfilment sweetness with the harsh reality of poor parenting and associated emotional stress and the redemptive joy of being able to correct a mistake.

A summer camp for children is dominated by the rebellious Lisa (Kyla Fox) who meets her match in Lottie (Nicole Fox) who refuses to be intimidated. The pair have a striking resemblance to each other, actually are identical, and, while sharing confidences, work out they are twins each raised by one of their estranged parents. Anxious to meet a parent they have never known, the pair decide to swap places and both they and their unknowing parents find the experience enriching. But the decision of their father Johan (James Darch) to remarry pushes the plan to crisis point.

The musical sticks to the post-war period in which the novel is set so there is no risk of the plan being thwarted prematurely by someone carelessly browsing the Internet. The innocent period setting also allows the cheerful use of stereotyped images of Germans in lederhosen, which would probably not be acceptable nowadays.

Identical is a rarity in exploiting the musical format to maximum effect. The scenes of the twins gossiping about their lives and hatching plots are perfect for call-and-response musical numbers. In the first fifteen minutes or so of the show, there is hardly any spoken dialogue; almost every line is sung as if the audience has wandered into an opera by mistake.

The opening sets the scene for a show in which fantasy is often overturned by harsh reality. A bright and cheerful tribute to the joys of summer descends into disharmony and chaos as a camp counsellor tries and fails to control a group of feral creatures otherwise known as children. No effort is made to disguise the fact Lisalotte (Emily Tierney) and Johan (James Darch) are shockingly poor parents: both workaholics, one leaving their child to be raised by a housekeeper and the other using their child as a housekeeper. The emotional cost to the children of the stress they are experiencing is apparent in sleepless nights and nightmares.

The set for Identical is state of the art as Robert Jones combines physical props with video designs from Douglas O’Connell projected onto wrap-around screens to give a completely convincing three-dimensional illusion of reality. The projections are so photo-realistic, the grass sways in the breeze and leaves fall from the trees. Johan's ballet which is staged within the musical looks deliberately threadbare by comparison with basic cardboard trees.

Identical is a thrilling showcase for the talents of the young cast members. There is a distinct drop in energy in the second half when the young cast and ensemble of youngsters drawn from the local area are absent. The central duo, real-life twins Nicole and Kyla Fox (who alternate with Emme and Eden Patrick and Sienna and Savannah Robinson), are amazing not only as singers but in being able to convey the audacity of their characters’ plan and their sheer glee in outsmarting the adults.

Director Trevor Nunn refuses to allow any of the characters to descend into clichéd behaviour. The motives underlying the decision of Lisalotte and Johan to divide up their family are explored in a sympathetic manner. As a result, Identical is a rich confection if occasionally over-egged with nothing left out. There is a full extract from Johan’s ballet rather than just a description of it being performed offstage. This, along with a dark nightmare sequence, is marvellous to watch but contributes to a lengthy running time that may strain the attention span of the young target audience.

A nuanced production, great songs and stunning performances ensure Identical is in a class of its own.

Reviewer: David Cunningham