“this musical packed as much energy as any West End show I’ve attended”
In the heart of Vauxhall, Above the Stag Theatre has established itself as the only professional LGBT+ theatre in the UK with Artistic Director Peter Bull introducing some exciting productions. Romance Romance is a revival of the 1980’s Broadway original, with book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann. Marketed as a reimagining told through the exploration of gay attraction and relationships, this two-act musical offers two very different stories both connected by the theme of love. Act One, The Little Comedy, is set in 19th Century Vienna and provides a light-hearted, farcical story of two people who upon adopting new personas fall in love. Act Two jumps forward to a contemporary setting in The Hamptons for Summer Share, which explores the complexities of love through the possibility of an affair.
First and foremost for a small production this musical packed as much energy as any West End show I’ve attended. The driving force behind this was the cast of just four performers (Ryan Anderson, Jordan Lee Davies, Alex Lodge, and Blair Robertson) who each threw themselves into this production heart and soul. Powerful performances from all but notably Ryan Anderson who brought the house down with his solo number ‘How did I end up Here?’ Some fantastic casting as the dynamic between the four was electric, and by the end of Act Two, the idea of this being a reimagining as a means to explore gay attraction is so far out of the picture, it was as if it was meant to have been written this way. Act Two really stood out because of its exploration of love, emotion and the complexities of relationships offering something we can all connect to regardless of your sexual orientation.
The direction (Steven Dexter with Summer Strallen as associate director) ensured the absolute most was made of all available space which doubled the size of the production as it burst out from every part of the stage. David Shields’ smart design allowed for the set to be transformed in front of our eyes, transporting us from Vienna to The Hamptons in a blink of an eye. Live music filled the room from upstage where the band sat playing for all to see, emphasising just how much can be achieved in a studio space. The lighting design (Jack Weir) added another layer which allowed for us to be transformed from the character’s private thoughts to new locations. The production made the most of all it had and then some.
Overall this musical was very sharp and full of life. My only wish is that it could be realised on a bigger scale as it has so much to offer. Act One offers you fun, songs, silliness and dance with Act Two bringing the heart and soul; a musical of two very different halves but with something for everything!
“The multi-talented Fraser imbues the character with just the right amount of dizziness and spice”
“I know what critics will say when Young Frankenstein opens in London” Mel Brooks said in a recent interview. “They’ll say – well, it’s good. But it’s not as great as The Producers was…” The reviews were mixed when it first ran on Broadway a decade ago, but one gets the feeling that Brooks doesn’t really give a damn. Yes, he has reworked and trimmed some of it since then, though this is probably more with an eye on the London audience and its sensibilities, rather than for the press. Bringing his musical adaptation of his cult film to the London stage looks set to be another triumph, not just theatrically, but also as another example of proving his detractors wrong. His career has flourished on the basis of ignoring all advice.
Some will say this show is outdated. But that’s the whole point. The original film was released in 1974 and was a spoof of the 1930s horror movies. To give it a contemporary feel would merely strip it of much of its character. Its charm lies in its bawdy double-entendres, and it is up to the audience to realise that the jokes are intended to fly in the face of all modern “…isms”.
The cast are clearly having the time of their life. Hadley Fraser excels as Frederick Frankenstein, Victor’s grandson – a New York Dean of Anatomy initially trying to disassociate himself from his heritage, until he learns he has inherited his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. The multi-talented Fraser (wisely choosing to make the role his own instead of emulating Gene Wilder’s original) imbues the character with just the right amount of dizziness and spice. He relishes the opportunity to travel to Transylvania, not at all distressed at having to leave behind his prim fiancée Elizabeth, played by the sublimely voiced Diane Pilkington who has the wonderful task of belting out two of the show’s finer numbers Please Don’t Touch me and Deep Love. On his way Frederick meets his lust interest, the red-hot Inga (Summer Strallen, clearly in her element here), the loyal, hunchback servant Igor – Ross Noble in a commanding acting debut – and finally Lesley Joseph’s mysterious Frau Bülcher.
Mel Brooks, who also penned the music and the lyrics, is clearly a master of rhyme and his tongue-twisting verses are a pure joy; peppered with innuendo and gags. The highlight of the show, though, is Irving Berlin’s Puttin’ On The Ritz where Frederick and the Monster (the heart winning Shuler Hensley) recreate the absurdly hilarious scene from the film.
It is difficult not to see this as a labour of love for Brooks – a union between the two things he loves the most: film and musical theatre. Yet he effortlessly avoids the trap of self-indulgence, for it is abundantly clear that everyone will love his show. By his own admission, it is possible for the magic and glory of a musical to equal the power of the film. The insanely talented troupe of actors realise this ambition for him. Yes, the jokes are old, but the energy fizzes like lightning and this show is a much needed electric shock to the West End. A musical that cannot fail to put a smile on even the most hardened poker face.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Manuel Harlan
is at The Garrick Theatre until 10th February 2018