Joe Pitts and Clara van Wel making music as Florizel and PerditaEmma Blacklay-Piech

“So, if we could just go from ‘thigh-slap, thigh-slap, knee-jump, thrust’ please!” the choreographer shouts to the cast of The Winter’s Tale. The ‘Bohemians’ of Shakespeare’s late romance, in full rehearsal mode, are currently clad in adidas tops, dancers’ leggings and Nike Airs. There is not one jaunty thesp scarf in sight, and a distinct lack of Received Pronunciation accents to boot; I try not to feel cheated by this lack of Cambridge theatrical stereotypes. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve wandered into that otherworldly part of the ADC where the music theatre diehards hang out. As the choreographer, figuring out a complex jig step, utters a particularly tuneful “Ummm…”, Toby Marlow, composer and musical director, pitches in on the same note, turning it into a wonderfully ornate descant; from across the room another actor joins in on a harmony; and another, to my left, takes this as a cue to break into what I’m pretty sure is Phantom of the Opera.

The wonderful thing about casting a Shakespeare play on the 400th anniversary of the playwright’s death, it seems, is that everyone wants to be involved. “I had over 90 people audition. It was the hardest casting process I’ve ever had”, the director, Will Bishop, later tells me. The result is an exceptionally talented and diverse cast. “We’ve got people who do three straight-plays a term every term, we’ve got people for whom this is their first show; we’ve got musical theatre kids, we’ve got comedians, we’ve got musicians… a truly lovely, gorgeous cast”. Which is just as well, in order to do justice to Toby’s equally gorgeous composition.

Sitting down to chat with Will and Toby in Robinson’s Red Brick Cafe (“It’s the best - I’m such a shameless Robinson advocate”, Toby tells me cheerfully as he ushers us in), I ask them how music came to be such a pivotal part of the show.

“So me and Bish have been friends ever since first year,” Toby begins, dragging Will into a dramatic embrace as he mimes wiping away a tear, “and then we decided ‘Oh, it would be so great if we could put on a show where you’re directing and I’m composing!’ And then I did the [score for the Footlight’s] pantomime -”

Will interjects with a smirk, knowing where the story is going: “Yeah, it was the Merry Men song -”

“So I think most people thought of me as just Beyonce and musical theatre,” Toby explains, jumping back in, “but after hearing that Will was like ‘Oh my god, you can write something vaguely, kind of, not completely gay!’. And I was like…” - the pair fall about laughing as Toby suddenly enters full queen mode - “‘Yaaas I can!’”

After Will got the green light for The Winter’s Tale - a play he’d been keen to stage for several years - the two got together this Easter “and just got writing”. “We’d read a scene, chat about what we wanted, and then I’d leave the room for about half an hour, come back in and Toby would say ‘I’ve got a great song, I’ve got a great song!’ - it was a really fun way of doing it”.

For Toby, original composition “just brings a piece of theatre to life”. They explain how music helps to set the scene in a play which is constantly jumping between two very different worlds. “When in the court in Sicilia, the only music you’re going to hear is this kind of eerie lullaby underscoring from a double bass and a violin. But then, when we go into Bohemia, the folk band becomes much more prominent. It’s all very…” - Toby pauses, searching for the appropriate adjective - “…foot-stampy!”

I can’t argue with this description; listening to the finale as the cast rehearses, it feels as though I’m being rowed merrily down the River Cam by Marcus Mumford himself. “Wait until you hear the Shepherd’s Dance!” chimes in Will. Toby grins in agreement and begins an impression of the guitar melody, air-strumming as Will drums lightly along on the table. The cafe-dwellers working away behind us nod along. I’m not sure which is more infectious: the barn-dance beat or their boundless enthusiasm.

Toby admits, with slight sheepishness, that Mumford and Sons were a definite influence when composing the score. “There was a point in the band rehearsal” says Will, “where you gave them a direction on how to start and one of them goes ‘Oh yeah – like’Babel’!’” Toby grimaces at the memory. “I was like ‘Yeeeeaaah… my favourite!’” His eyes flicker down towards his ‘FLAWLESS’ sweatshirt and he smirks; by this point we have already shared more than one ecstatic squeal over Lemonade - it is quite clear that the waist-coated territory of pop-folk is not the composer’s preferred genre.

In the context of the director’s creative vision, however, it makes perfect sense. “The folk thing was there from the very start of my idea, definitely”, Will tells me. “The whole scene that takes place in Bohemia is usually staged as a sort of village fete type thing, but for most students in Cambridge - particularly those who come from London - this is a pretty abstract concept. So to have this modern folk tie-in… it provides something that a contemporary Cambridge audience can engage with”.

Toby Marlow and Will BishopJohannes Hjorth

From what I can gather, the show aims for an almost fairy-tale atmosphere of timelessness. On creating such a tone Will says, “you set out to pick whatever you want from whatever time period works, and then slam it all together”. “So,” he explains, “you have people walking around in suits, but you also have people in lederhosen. It’s just what fitted with -”

“With the aesthetic!”, Toby finishes for him. “And that’s what I love. So often with Shakespeare, it’s like ‘Let’s take this play, and do it in this time period’, just to see how it works. Which is fine - there is something interesting from a dramaturgical perspective about getting a play, shoving it in a decade, and seeing what rings true and what sits uncomfortably.”

“But what I love is when you can just sense the aesthetic, and can go ahead and say ‘Let’s do this play set in this world that I’ve created!’ - because then nothing feels false”.

Which is where Toby’s own composition comes in. “There’s just something about original music… it’s all very well putting pre-existing pop songs into your show, and that can be really effective. But when you’ve got music prompted by a director who’s said ‘I specifically want this for these moments’ -”. Now it’s Will’s turn to jump in: “It takes the atmosphere from a script and makes it real”.

“Everything we’ve done has come from Shakespeare,” Toby concludes, “Shakespeare gives you everything. I’ve had so much fun taking old text, and then applying Laura Marling/Bon Iver type accompaniment to it. The words come to life. In the musical context, the verse sounds like normal, modern English. It just comes together. And so,” he says, turning to Will, “the music matches an aesthetic that you’ve created… with a little help from me!”

The Winter’s Tale is perhaps the most ambitious production of the term, involving not just a band and an original score, but child actors, special effects, considerable set and a total team of over 40 people. Interviewing Will and Toby is a bit like crashing the make-believe game of two kids who, through some unspoken instinct, have dreamed up an imaginary Shakespearean world together. But, just as it is in the music, the playfulness is underpinned by a sense of surety: a whole-hearted commitment, as Toby might say, to the aesthetic.

The Winter's Tale is showing at 7:45pm from Tuesday 3rd to Saturday 7th May at the ADC Theatre.