Fanny A New Musichall
Crescent – The Vaults
Reviewed – 18th February 2020
The Unruly Regiment, consisting of mother-daughter duo Carolyn Scott-Jeffs and Lizzie Wofford brought to the VAULT Festival an engaging and engaged new musical. And it is absolutely stunning.
Fanny wants to sing in music halls. Given she possesses the unbelievably strong voice of Lizzie Wofford as well as her charismatic stage presence, she may well succeed. But Fanny feels she needs to tell a story – a story of her friend Elsie who, as her cabaret counterpart, also “wasn’t what you call a blushing flower” and definitely “as a matter of fact, she rented by the hour”. Although “happiest corpse” she probably was not. The story of Elsie goes from nought to 100 in no time. What starts as a cheerful, slightly sentimental and genuinely funny journey to the world of music halls and Victorian morality (with audience participation galore) takes a much gloomier turn in the second half. The 19th century that is so often romanticised on stage and on screen, with all its dark sides blissfully covered over, is here with an unforgiving world of misery – particularly for women, and even more particularly – for prostitutes.
“Fanny: a New Musichall” was written by Carolyn Scott-Jeffs, and brilliantly so. It is very well composed – a traditional musical theatre formula (introducing songs in the first half, reprising them in the second) and the deconstruction of the story as well as the balance between comedic and tragic elements create a seamless and internally logical whole. Characters she created are unaffectedly engaging and easy for the audience to empathise with, richly brought to life by Tim Ford’s clever direction. Lizzie Wofford who plays Fanny and Elsie (and virtually every other character in Fanny’s tale about Elsie) is a powerhouse. Tom Noyes as Fanny’s a bit “funny” pianist is wonderfully hilarious. The musical arrangements by Peter John Dodsworth are quite brilliant, above all in the reprisals that extract a wholly different meaning from popular show tunes. Design (by Connie Watson), lighting (by Anna Reddyhoff) and costumes (on-budget variation on period attire) all complement “Fanny” in a perfectly fine if a tad unobtrusive way.
The only downside is, “Fanny: a New Musichall” runs for only three performances during the VAULT Festival. It is definitely not enough for a show that great.
Reviewed by Dominika Fleszar
Reviewed – 11th September 2019
“It’s warped and weird; intriguingly surreal”
Sergei Rachmaninoff was just beginning his career as one of Russia’s most promising composers when he was struck with crippling depression. For three years he was unable to write music and eventually began seeing a hypnotherapist to overcome his creative block. Dave Malloy’s Preludes, originally produced off-Broadway in 2015, reimagines these years. Filled with Rachmaninoff’s music, and framed as a series of hypnotherapy sessions, the story follows the young musician’s journey back from the brink. Alex Sutton directs the London premier.
Described as “a musical fantasia set in the hypnotised mind of Sergei Rachmaninoff”, the show fits the bill. It’s warped and weird; intriguingly surreal. A blend of present and past, the world is a dreamlike confusion of modern-day New York City and 1890s Moscow. Rach and his friends take the subway to meet Tolstoy, and he must ask permission from the Czar to marry. Malloy reinforces this alternate universe with modern adaptations of Rachmaninoff’s compositions. The grand piano on stage is flanked by two keyboards (Jordan Li-Smith and Billy Bullivant).
The hybrid music is a successful experiment. Although Malloy’s lyrics can feel simple and uninspired at times, the cast’s strong vocal performances are a treat. Georgia Louise stands out in particular, and Norton James and Rebecca Caine’s operatic voices nicely contribute to the show’s clash between modern musical and nineteenth century opera.
Preludes’ setting is impossibly tricky: it’s Russia and America; 2019 and late 1890s; it mostly takes place inside a character’s mind. But set and costume designer Rebecca Brower has risen to the challenge. Rach (Keith Ramsay) wears a long overcoat, black combat boots, and eyeliner. He has the double-headed eagle insignia of the Russian Empire tattooed on his back. Natalya (Georgia Louise) wears a blouse, a long taffeta skirt, and Superga trainers. Brower’s set frames the stage in concentric rectangular shapes which light up with the music, invoking an EDM concert as well as a trance-inducing illusion: a canny reminder that the scenes are figments of a hypnotised mind – that we should be prepared for the distorted and the unreal. It all comes together to create an uneasy yet appealing aesthetic.
Like Rach’s psyche, the show divides the artist in two: there’s the tortured young man (Ramsay), and his music (Tom Noyes). Cleverly, the two manifestations occasionally acknowledge or disrupt each other. Ramsay is ideal as the troubled genius. His hunched shoulders and wide eyes give him a haunted air. He’s the sensitive, uncertain artist, wounded by the world, and at the same time the defiant punk Malloy believes the composer was at heart – deliberately wanting his music to upset his teachers, to blow the walls off tradition with his big, loud, chaotic scores. Noyes is at the piano throughout, and his performance is a delight. Steven Serlin brings much of the comedy with his characters (Chekov, Tolstoy, the Czar). He plays nicely off Ramsay’s insecurity and gloominess.
While Preludes is smart, imaginative, and greatly enjoyable, there are moments where it falters. The beginning takes a while to get going. The wedding scene, which begins compelling and funny with Serlin’s Czar, runs on and becomes saccharine with discussion of where God can be found. The painfully long guided hypnotism near the end will test your patience.
But as a whole, the show’s strengths outweigh its flaws. Inventive and enticingly strange, Preludes is a fantastical celebration of music. It’s playful and irreverent with a deep love of its subject at its heart. Malloy and Sutton seem to be arguing Rachmaninoff would have appreciated the audacity. They might be right.
Reviewed by Addison Waite
Photography by Scott Rylander
Southwark Playhouse until 12th October
Last ten shows reviewed at this venue: