It’s 1963 and Eddie Birdlace has one more night before him and his fellow marine buddies (Bernstein and Boland – the three bees) ship out to the Vietnam war. Full of the certainty of their invincibility and the promise of a hero’s return, the marines spend their night partaking in a long honoured tradition: the dogfight. A simple premise. Each marine puts in fifty bucks. They throw a party. The marine who can bring the ugliest date wins the leftover money. When Eddie meets Rose he is sure he has found the perfect girl for the dogfight, but he doesn’t bargain for what comes next.
At its heart this is a love story but it is also investigates toxic masculinity. The marines have only had thirteen weeks training, and can’t be more than nineteen years old. They are vessels of a violent and ugly misogyny, but at the same time they are no more than boys, naive and vulnerable, in no way ready to face war. In heartbreaking juxtaposition, Rose is a breath of fresh air to the stage, intelligent, interesting and ultimately kind.
The performers are all members of the British Theatre Academy, which offers accessible training and performance opportunities to young people under the age of twenty three. And what a cast they are. Across the board they are full of energy and conviction, and there isn’t a weak link onstage. Our leading pair played by Stephen Lewis-Johnson and Claire Keenan in this performance – two casts alternate – are brilliant. Keenan is particularly compelling, funny and genuine, immediately likeable. She is utterly engaging to watch. Her and Lewis-Johnson are in turn lovely together, and both vocally really strong. Lewis-Johnson’s lonely return from Vietnam is an undeniably powerful end to the show which he delivers with the full emotional punch it deserves.
The band are faultless. It’s a fantastic score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (both music and lyrics) that they handle with accomplishment and ease.
The set by Dean Johnson and Andrew Exeter is simple but effective. The band, lit by warm lamps are at the back of the stage and the different settings are created by wooden crates. A particularly lovely moment sees light bulbs suspended by cast members to create street lamps around Eddie and Rose on their first date.
This a brilliant and nuanced musical that is delivered by an incredibly talented cast and band.
“I couldn’t tell whether I left humming the melodies because they were catchy, or just because they just recurred so many times in the show”
A Christmas Story: The Musical is a stage adaptation of the 1983 film of the same name. It’s a national treasure in the US, with a tradition of being played back to back on one TV channel for 48 hours from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. In the UK, there’s not the same collective consciousness. Without any prior knowledge, the plot is pretty bizarre.
The story follows Ralphie, told in flashback by his older self, counting down to Christmas somewhere in Indiana in the mid-1940s. He’s obsessed with convincing his parents to gift him a Red Ryder Carbine action BB gun. His parents, teacher, even a drunk Santa at the Department Store, all give him the same reply to his request: “you’ll shoot your eye out!”. So far so normal. It’s the wacky sub-plots involving Ralphie’s dad winning a lamp made from a female mannequin’s leg and other such vignettes that make it difficult to connect with an otherwise sweet family story.
Keen musical buffs may note that the music and lyrics are by Pasek and Paul. The duo are the songwriters behind the Broadway smash Dear Evan Hansen and also wrote lyrics for the songs in the Oscar winning film La La Land. The songs here are familiar in format and style, but none feel as powerful or memorable. I couldn’t tell whether I left humming the melodies because they were catchy, or just because they just recurred so many times in the show.
The cast is kept tight, with the majority of roles accounted for by children from the British Theatre Academy. The children’s roles are shared across two casts, with all those I saw providing sweet and endearing performances. Felix Hepburn as Ralphie does a great job with a hefty role, practically on stage and carrying the story for the full two hours. Special mention should also be given to Ethan Manwaring as Ralphie’s younger brother Randy, who was fizzing with enthusiasm and always carrying a cheeky grin. The adult performers provided high calibre vocals which were some of the most pleasing moments of the show.
Where present, the choreography was slick and personally, I would have loved to see more. Oliver Harman’s set design and Becky Livermore’s costume did well to evoke a sense of a mid-western 1940s home. But overall, the disparate and madcap plot let this piece down.