Dodie Smith’s classic bohemian romance hopes to capture hearts in musical revival

Coming-of-age novel I Capture the Castle is adapted for the stage

One of Britain’s most popular romantic novels, Dodie Smith’s coming-of-age classic I Capture the Castle, beloved of writers including JK Rowling and Joanna Trollope, is to be adapted as a musical this spring. After working on the project for more than five years, British director Brigid Larmour has revealed details of her plan to bring the offbeat love story to the stage.

“When it was first suggested to me for musical adaptation, I said, no – we can’t do big musicals. Then I read it and fell for it,” Larmour told the Observer.

With a script by Teresa Howard and music by Steven Edis, the show is produced jointly by Larmour’s Watford Palace Theatre and the Octagon Theatre Bolton, with the curtain going up at Watford in early April.

Smith wrote her much-loved first novel in 1948, when she was living in America in self-imposed exile with her conscientious-objector husband Alec Beesley, and found herself yearning for her native English countryside. Although she was later to find international fame as the author of children’s book The Hundred and One Dalmatians and its sequel The Starlight Barking, it is her early attempt to “capture” the confusion and excitement of late adolescence in rural England that has earned her the greatest literary plaudits. The novel has never been out of print and remains a big seller in both adult and children’s editions.

Fans of the new musical include Trollope, who once said that her two daughters used reactions to I Capture the Castle to judge whether they were going to get on with people. Set in the 1930s in a dilapidated castle in Suffolk, it tells the story of the impoverished and artistic Mortmain family who are all, in different ways, trying to find their path through life. At the centre of the plot are two teenage girls, Cassandra, who Rowling has called “the most charismatic narrator” she has ever met, and her beautiful elder sister Rose, who dreams of being swept off her feet. Soon two likely heroes appear, in the shape of rich American brothers. But which is best suited for which sister? Or is romantic love not an honest goal for a modern girl?

Dodie Smith
Smith at work in 1934. Photograph: Sasha/Getty Images

“This musical has been a labour of love,” said Larmour. “It is a very English and eccentric book and we have all been passionate about making this happen. Dodie’s late nephew came to an early run-through of our ideas and the music and he was very supportive. It is important for us not to be ironic with the story, or to have much pastiche in the music. Although it is funny in places, it is also a very emotionally direct book that comes right from the heart.”

Following the success of the film La La Land and the imminent arrival in the West End of a hit stage version of the influential 1951 film musical An American in Paris, Larmour said she believes audiences will be in the mood for romantic musical theatre. But she adds that her production stays close to the spirit of the book, which tells the story through Cassandra’s diary. The novel opens with the famous line: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”

“Dodie herself turned it into a play in the 1940s, though that was not thought to have got the aesthetic right. Our musical will have a completely fluid form. We have been inspired by the dancing in An American in Paris and by the ballet sequence in Oklahoma, but we will stick ruthlessly to the psychological truth of Smith’s characters. The book is just so thoroughly of itself,” she added.

Larmour thinks the theme is the transition to understanding grownup love and the struggle to live without compromise. “When you read about the lives of posh bohemians of the 1930s, you find that they often were deeply poor, with a ‘make do and mend’ attitude,” said Larmour.

Other writers who admire I Capture the Castle include novelist Evie Wyld, and Armistead Maupin, who was given a copy by his grandmother and, in tribute, used a diary structure for his novel Maybe the Moon. Lady Antonia Fraser is on record as being so taken with the novel that she “liberated” it from the school library.

Larmour has not revealed whether the show will open with its star sitting in that famous sink.


Vanessa Thorpe Arts and media correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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