Electric Theatre Guildford
Thursday 25 September 2016
Alex Parker and Katie Lam are a remarkable musical-writing partnership: having been friends since childhood, in the last couple of years they have taken to writing songs together, songs that have grown into shows. Two years ago, they launched their first show, ‘Amateur Dramatics', given a ‘high-end' amateur production at Alex's favoured stomping ground of the lovely riverside Electric Theatre. Via a concert of songs for ‘The Railway Children', with a couple of hundred numbers under their shared belt, the partnership is embarking upon a period of confident and rapid development. ‘Amateur Dramatics' is about to go into professional workshop development. And, right on cue, comes their next full-length show, presented with even greater splendour by professional creative and technical teams and band. The results are very impressive.
The setting here is a cruise ship in 1975, and it is filled with amusingly exotic characters, both in its crew and passengers. It is in the drawing of the characters that Parker and Lam excel: 21 assorted odd-bods, each a stock character from ‘classic' British comedy, parades this way and that across the decks, and through the salons and cabins, and each of them with a fascinating story to tell. It is a show perfectly designed to showcase the talents of an enthusiastic and ambitious amateur company, and that function is brilliantly fulfilled here, with a sense of harmonious ensemble created by the constant switching of focus from one storyline to another, allowing none to dominate over the others. The intrepid duo produce their own work, too, but they are careful to do so in a way that respects the conventions and mores of the world out of which they art has grown.
Their score, similarly, democratically moves amongst the lengthy cast list, bestowing its charms evenly about the varied emotional journeys of its population of familiar ‘turns'. In this sense, it resembles the old-fashioned revue-based ‘musical comedy', and no wonder: Alex and Katie love that form, and use it to describe what they do. This is all well and good. It enables them to create simply gorgeous musical numbers that delightfully express the anticipations and excitements, the loves and frustrations, the losses and regrets, of the comedy of life. Here, the song list delivers some particularly well-shaped melodies, with cleverly varied and often touchingly effective lyrics.
The anthemic opening, ‘The Most Wonderful Ship' is staged with West End aplomb and signals the capacity of these writers to pitch themselves at the commercial world. It is followed up by a string of character numbers – the ship owner's punchy ‘I Want More', the witty ensemble list-song ‘Take It In', and a surprising duet ‘It's Not The Same' – that underline the versatility of this writing team. The work goes on to compass such variants as the show-stopping disco hit ‘Close The Door' and the exquisitely bittersweet 11 o'clock number ‘It Doesn't Matter Now': as an artistic calling card, they could hardly have come up with anything better. This musical offering is head and shoulders above a great deal of what makes it in the marketplace.
The difference is in the script. Katie has a beautiful ear for dialogue and her text is always a joy to hear: as well as plundering ‘Anything Goes' or ‘The Gay Divorce', she takes from Ealing comedies, Carry On films, Sit-com, and comediennes like Victoria Wood, and cheerfully bends and moulds the tropes, the turns of phrase, the idioms and vocabulary to suit her own needs. It's huge fun just enjoying the ride she provides. She has a huge cast of equally compelling characters, and any one of them might be said – when they are holding forth – to be the most wonderful character in the tale. And each character gets plenty to say, with a correspondent effect upon the overall length of the show: for a light musical comedy, it's generous.
I suspect, if and when the team decides it is ready to break into the professional game – and it seems that that moment may not be far off, they will know exactly how to go about that, too. These are real troupers. Alex, with his credentials as a respected MD in a wide range of core repertoire shows (currently sojourning at The Queens with Les Mis), and Katie with her background in the business world, these are people who know how to get a job done.
Meanwhile, we have this ravishing production by Charlotte Conquest, all pin-point characterisations and fluid transitions, assisted by Indiana Collins. The look is handsomely designed and lit by the ingenious Declan Randall. Jordan Lee Davies acquits himself admirably in his debut as a choreographer, ably assisted by Jessica Burrage. Sara Scott deliciously calls up the looks of the 70s in her many, many costumes, and Sam Cox and Lauren Appleby have the onerous responsibility of getting the hair and wigs right – and do. The terrifically ample sound is by Andrew Josephs, through which we hear not only the marvelous voices of the cast but also Martin Higgins' orchestrations: Martin is ‘the third man' in this great writing combo, and here his work sounds amazing in the hands of a band brought together by Parker out of the best of the West End's section leaders: you don't hear many professional bands playing as well as this one, let alone amateur ones.
And the company, all giving their energies for a song and dance, make this the wonder it is: a rollicking night out, and also a landmark in the development of another great British musical theatre writing team. Where will they go to next?
Photos: Darren Bell