“the entertainment factor is what drives this show with its irresistible force”
Kid Pop (Jonny Labey) is a rock star; top of the game and at the height of fame. He has the whole world in his hands, yet he is in the firm clutches of his addiction to cocaine and alcohol. Inevitably he is up against an unsympathetic judge after the tabloids splash his drug habit on the front pages. Expecting a custodial sentence, he is instead sent into rehab for sixty days. Kid Pop cockily accepts this as a free holiday rather than the journey into the wilderness we follow him on. He is, of course, in denial. In control. The drugs are in control – but so is his pr man, Malcolm Stone (Keith Allen) whose hold over him proves to be almost as fatal as the narcotics. Labey and Allen are portraying vivid caricatures here, but the beauty of their performances lightens them into warm shades of humanity. A skill shared by the entire cast.
The story, to some degree, stems from songwriter Grant Black’s and Britpop poet Murray Lachlan’s personal battles with addiction and mental health. But far from preaching they have alchemised their experiences, along with writer Elliot Davis, into a shining gem of musical theatre. It has just the right balance of humour and pathos, shallowness and depth to appeal to the masses. Yes, the journey is a touch predictable, and the twists in the road clearly signposted, but the entertainment factor is what drives this show with its irresistible force.
Labey is enjoying every moment, barely able to contain his delight even in the darker moments. He has sixty days to recover in ‘The Glade’; the rehabilitation centre populated with his fellow addicts. Depicted as misfits they resemble everyman – perhaps a symbol of the ubiquity of addiction. The velvet voiced Phil Sealey is poignantly magnificent as over-eater Phil while Annabel Giles hilariously recounts the past shenanigans of sex-addict Jane Killy (numerous name-drops of real-life celebrities will surely have lawyers working overtime!). ‘The Glade’ even houses a tanning addict. “Yes – it’s a thing” deadpans John Barr in a glorious turn as Barry Bronze, forever showing polaroids of his orange skin from past holidays.
While Kid Pop counts his days in rehab, Malcolm Stone desperately and ruthlessly tries to keep his protégé in the headlines and his name alive (if not the client). Obsessive, corrupt and foul, Allen amazingly renders him likeable. Jodie Steele gives a star turn as sidekick Beth Boscombe, hard as steel (no pun intended) but with a heart, and voice, of gold. The show stealer, though, is Gloria Onitiri as Lucy Blake, sent into ‘The Glade’ by Stone to spy on Kid Pop. Onitiri’s presence and outstanding vocals are as dangerously intoxicating as the subject matter.
The writers have put together a wonderfully strong piece of theatre. It shuns digging deep into the nature of addiction, but it never belittles it. The abundant humour never mocks these characters – there is too much affection and care in the writing. But let us not forget that this is a musical. And the score is exceptional. From stadium rock to cheesy-pop; power ballads alternate with rousing ensemble pieces. Duets and solos tug our hearts in all directions possible. All pulsing with wonderfully clever and emotive lyrics, and swaying to the rhythms of Gary Lloyd’s sharp choreography.
“Rehab” comes with a message but is so beautifully dressed up in song and dance we soak it up without realising what we are learning. We are just swept along on the highs and lows of a truly addictive performance.
“Using multi-talented actor musicians, it is in reality a delight to watch throughout”
The premise of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Whistle Down the Wind” is interesting, and quite fun; if not a little implausible. A group of children stumble upon an escaped killer in a barn and through their unwavering belief that he is the Second Coming, they decide to keep his whereabouts a secret from the authorities. Despite being inescapably aware of the townsfolk’s collective hysteria about a murderer being on the loose.
The musical’s book (by Lloyd Webber himself, with Patricia Knop and Gale Edwards) has taken the action Stateside from its humble, English birthplace. The original novel, by Mary Hayley Bell, was set in Sussex while the 1961 film had moved up to Lancashire. We now find ourselves in the heart of the Louisiana Bible Belt. It is the 1950s and religious zeal is as high as the crop in the cornfields. Spearheaded by the adolescent Swallow (Lydia White), the young ones seem to question their elders’ unflinching faith yet refuse to bend from their own fledgling faith. Contradiction seems to be an underlying motif to this story.
The central theme pits the childhood innocence against adult cynicism; young, wide-eyed faith in ‘good’ against the older, blind faith in ‘evil’. Swallow symbolises the former, yet in Tom Jackson Greave’s staging she is too mature to give real credibility to her naive and innocent belief in ‘The Man’ who has unwittingly become Jesus Christ incarnate. White sweeps this worry aside, though, with an energetic and enthralling performance that sees her in customary fine voice.
Musically the show is disjointed, which isn’t necessarily a problem in itself, but in this case it’s hard to understand the shifts in styles. However, there is no denying the quality of music. Each number would pass the Old Grey Whistle test. Lloyd Webber’s theatricality is in full view, framed with influences of gospel, nineties pop, sixties rock, and with reprises and leitmotifs aplenty. And, of course, the mark of the late, great Jim Steinman is stamped indelibly across much of the libretto. “Tire Tracks and Broken Hearts” and “Nature of the Beast” have hot-footed over straight from a Meatloaf gig.
Incongruous to the infectious score is Jackson Greaves’ choreography, much of which feels out of place with the lyrical narrative. The ghost of Swallow’s mother, dancing like a spectral Kate Bush at every conceivable moment is eventually jarring. The intent is clear but unnecessarily overplayed. Similarly overstated is the bible bashing nature of the community. Conversely, the inherent Southern racism of the era is not fully given voice; its mouthpiece confined predominantly to the red neck sheriff – albeit convincingly and masterfully portrayed by the charismatic Toby Webster.
I must confess at this point that I do feel churlish picking at the faults, which are mainly down to the book. For this production is really quite brilliant. Using multi-talented actor musicians, it is in reality a delight to watch throughout. So, hats off to a wonderful cast. ‘The Man’ mistaken for the second coming is indeed a shining star guiding us through the show. Robert Tripolino’s presence and soaring voice fills the auditorium, while his performance remains alluringly intimate. With a twitchy sensitivity that offsets his opportunistic and manipulative pragmatism Tripolino embodies the unpredictability of a man with nothing left to lose. Complemented (rather than supported – this is very much an ensemble piece) by such a strong cast we are steered away from the fault-lines. Lewis Cornay and Chrissie Bhima as the doomed, ‘born-to-run’ teens, Amos and Candy, are an electric duo, while Lloyd Gorman’s fierce yet foibled father figure is a masterful presence.
The musicianship is astounding, led by onstage musical director, Elliot Mackenzie (the manic snake preacher and minister) the ensemble is a dynamic band, shifting from whispering intimacy to orchestral storms while seamlessly swapping instruments with extraordinary sleight of hand. Andrew Exeter’s rich and evocative lighting add to the magic. “Whistle Down the Wind” may have had its fair share of detractors in the past, and it does have its weaknesses, but this revival on the whole highlights its strengths.