The Other Palace
Reviewed – 19th September
“A louder voice, greater dynamic variation and some brutal editing are needed to keep it afloat in the current swamp of new musicals”
The deluge of new musicals on the London theatre scene is a double-edged sword. Whilst this might please devotees of the genre, the wider appeal inevitably evaporates. And for composers and producers, this overcrowding adds its own challenges. The annual BEAM festival for new musicals, for example, received over three hundred pitches to be whittled down to fifty, while the West End continues to churn out re-issues, jukebox musicals, imports and any old film titles.
Thankfully there are now theatres dedicated to developing and promoting new musicals. The Other Palace is at the forefront of this movement, accepting submissions year-round as well as staging its ‘new musical workshop sharings’ where the audience is at the core of the process, witnessing the evolving show and offering feedback. “Normality” is one such musical testing the water. Subtitled “A Musical Guide to Quantifying Love in a World of Frauds and Scammers”, it is as quirky and zestful as its tag line suggests. Writers Jules Kleiser and Nige Reid are both song writers/musicians and have written the score for a four-piece rock band and ten voices. Under Charlotte Peters’ stylish direction, the cast of ten fill the stage, and the auditorium, creating a host of characters without feeling overcrowded.
At the centre is Norman Goodman, a small town, prog-rock obsessed keyboard player, with a nerdiness that is off the scale. Thinking that he is auditioning for a life changing gig he has, in fact, wandered into a corporate interview for a dodgy City trading company. Failing the interview, he nevertheless impresses by fixing the office computer. Invited to design an IT system to predict market trends for the firm, he then unwittingly finds himself embroiled in a Machiavellian financial scam. Norman’s narrow outlook on life is cruelly broadened as he battles with the dilemma of who to trust; a quandary he equates to a scientific equation.
The musical opens with too soft a punch. The band, placed up in the gallery, lack the volume to prick up the ears. But one quickly realises that this is to compensate for the singers not using mics. Whether this is an artistic or financial decision is unclear, but it does lead to problems of projection. Much of the libretto is lost during the solo numbers, particularly when some of the melodies wander beyond the actors’ vocal range. This is not ‘legit’ musical theatre, so the inconsistent quality of the singing can be forgiven, and where technique is occasionally lacking it is certainly made up for by character. Dan Buckley, in fine voice as Norman, is believable as the wunderkind with a heart, while Siobhan Athwal’s love interest mixes a no-nonsense steeliness with a true-hearted empathy. Ken Christiansen is all cockney brass as the bulldog CEO, unaware that all around him are ready to pull the carpet from underneath him. Claire Marlowe stands out as the privileged, upper class Lady Cocksure, with more faces than the town clock, who is intent on bringing everybody down.
But nothing unexpected really happens; either in the comedy, the dialogue or the score. With the exception of a refreshingly surreal Tango and a Ska infused number the soundtrack is quite monotone. It is like the composers are handling the material with kid gloves. There is a rawness to the satire of the book that is unmatched by a slightly reticent, almost polite, delivery of the guitar-based numbers. A louder voice, greater dynamic variation and some brutal editing are needed to keep it afloat in the current swamp of new musicals. At present it feels adrift in its own deference.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
The Other Palace until 21st September
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Reviewed – 17th October 2018
“the beauty of this musical (a real showcase of some of Sondheim’s finest numbers) is that the songs do not eclipse the characters”
A lot has been made of the gender swapping element of Marianne Elliott’s ground breaking production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Company”. By his own admission, Sondheim was initially unsure that he wanted it to happen. His reservations were understandable: all too often you see theatre where the protagonist has been made female and it doesn’t always work. It is to Elliott’s credit that he was persuaded to allow it (such was Sondheim’s faith in her) and the result is a brilliantly up to date reimagining of the work.
It seems that few alterations have been made to George Furth’s book. There are the obvious pronoun substitutions and lyrical changes, yet it is a seamless transformation – it is easy to forget that this version isn’t how it was originally written. Although it is radical, it doesn’t feel it. It feels natural and poignantly relevant, which is the ultimate compliment. Leave any preconceptions and debate at the door and just revel in the astonishing gorgeousness of this production.
In the absence of any real plot it relies on the sharp dialogue and characterisation and, of course, Sondheim’s inimitable score. Each song is a vignette – a stand-alone moment, but wedded to the narrative and given a sparkle of confetti by Bunny Christie’s ingenious ‘Alice in Wonderland’ design.
Rosalie Craig plays Bobbie, the single, independent woman, as a bewildered onlooker; surveying the inexplicable bargaining, bickering, compromises, trade-offs, understandings and misunderstandings of her friends’ marriages. She perfectly treads the path from amused derision through to a longing to be part of this weird world of wedded ‘bliss’. The dichotomy is heightened coming from the perspective of a woman aware of her biological clock ticking away on her thirty-fifth birthday. There is a spellbinding routine where Liam Steel’s choreography has four identically dressed versions of Bobbie appear to her in a dream as spirits of her future self; stuck in a clockwork loop of morose matrimony and motherhood. Craig gives a performance that will surely make her a West End fixture for quite some time.
But she is in good company. It is a show full of star turns. Jonathan Bailey showers the audience with the impossibly quick-fire lyrics of “Getting Married Today” with the lung capacity of a free-diver. George Blagden, Richard Fleeshman and Matthew Seadon-Young, as Bobbie’s three potential boyfriends offer a gloriously fresh take on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy”. Patti Lupone’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” is an unforgettable cry of self-deprecatory discontent. But the beauty of this musical (a real showcase of some of Sondheim’s finest numbers) is that the songs do not eclipse the characters. Mel Giedroyc and Gavin Spokes as the abstemious argumentative couple in denial, Daisy Maywood and Ashley Campbell as the happily divorced couple, Jennifer Saayeng and Richard Henders as the doped-up, straight-laced couple are all hilarious yet touching (my word count is cautioning me to be self-editing here). The entire piece comes with an immense sense of fun, without losing any of the emotive power. Craig’s solos; “Someone Is Waiting”, “Marry Me a Little” and, of course “Being Alive”, are achingly pure and heartfelt.
The friends that surround Bobbie repeatedly urge her to find somebody who will take care of her. “But who will I take of?” she responds. I think it’s safe to say that the success of this show is well and truly taken care of. I hope nothing is booked into the Gielgud Theatre for the foreseeable future.
Craig’s Bobbie bookends many of the scenes with the simple, singular word ‘Wow’. I left the theatre with the same word resounding in my head. Sondheim’s musical and Elliott’s production is a perfect match.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Gielgud Theatre until 30th March