23 June 2017
A thoroughly charming, and fun, experience in musical comedy lies in store for all those who tread the path of the wand’ring minstrel currently enjoying a revamped revival of the 2006 re-write, thanks to the good offices of the Union Theatre. Sasha Regan, artistic director, is mounting her first production in the new premises and handles the space, and story and score well, in cahoots with regular choreographic collaborator Chris Whittaker, providing the deft footwork in the musical staging. With house trademark distressed designs from Ryan Dawson Laight, filling a drop cloth of a Europe apparently with its heart and guts ripped out (how symbolic!), the action is lit expertly by industry stalwart Iain Dennis, with acoustic arrangements and music direction by expert Simon Holt. The production is light on its feet and light on sentiment, offering a light comedic touch to lots and lots and lots of musical numbers. As a feelgood show for the onset of summer, it hits the mark!
The first half tells the story of how the 12th century songsmith of the title (a good-looking turn from newcomer Connor Arnold, who is surprisingly vocally underpowered and dramatically understated here: I’ve seen him make much more impressive impact elsewhere) gets ‘discovered’ and then promoted to the top job at court for Richard the Lionheart (he with the crusade-addiction, made hipster-meets-ironman-like flesh here by the heroically voiced Neil Moors, a magnificent presence, well known from the ‘All-male-‘ G&S shows that have been a Union speciality of late). The women keeping our hero going through this are mum (a brisk Katie Meller) and empowered feminist girlfriend Fiona (a polished Jessie May, who always make it completely clear that it is he who really needs her, and not the other way around: an interesting novelty in musical theatreland). Blondel, like so many other musos, is exclusively interested in his music, and only wants the top job because of his obsessive artistic self-belief. That gives the impetus to his second-half epic journey around the continent tracking down a disappeared Richard – whose conceit and bad-temper have landed him in gaol at the hands of one of the show’s many, many camp figures: the Duke of Austria (Jay Worthy, who also does a nice turn as the first act’s comic foil, Saladin).
Vexing his ambitions, however, is the work’s leading comic-opera antagonist, the ‘Assassin’ (a truly brilliant comic creation by Michael Burgen, whose antics alone are worth the price of the ticket) and also the high-camp Alan-Cumming-look-a-like, Freddie-Mercury-sound-a-like Prince John (a delicious incarnation by James Thackeray), who gets a stunning showstopper in the second act’s ‘I Just Can’t Wait To Be King’. These two suggest strongly that the show might well grow even stronger stage legs, were it to let its hair down just a bit more, allow itself to enjoy the laughs more. Meanwhile, the title of THAT number may hint that the show trades – and shamelessly – on aping and imitating other works; to an extent, it does, but please remember that it was written a full decade before ‘The Lion King’, and it is just as capable of laying down solid musical theatre tropes as in trying others’ for size; I think this may be an instance of where other people maybe were ‘inspired’ by it.
Nevertheless, a considerable part of the charm of Stephen Oliver’s musical palette, and that subsequently elaborated by Mathew Pritchard, is how it cleverly and wittily utilises sounds from across the musical landscape from the ‘Kings’ Singers’ style quartet of plainsong chanting Monks (David Fearn, Ryan Hall, Oliver Marshall and Calum Neville) up to a smattering of pop styles from the 80s. Oliver’s music rarely lays any claim to having the capacity of freeing itself from its theatrical surroundings, whereas Pritchard’s ‘Aim For The Heart’ deservedly claims the right to be the production’s exit music: it is definitely a tune to linger with you. All in all, it is charmingly written stuff, and although it may not quite get beyond two-dimensional comic book characterisation, makes for a very pleasant experience.
Equally glorious are the often extremely ingenious and elegant lyrics by Tim Rice, who can raise eyebrows here with unexpectedly delicate effects that humanise even the broadest moments of ribaldry. The book, originally by Rice and Tom Williams, has been given yet another work over, and if perhaps it still doesn’t quite solve all the technical problems it sets for itself, it nonetheless shows us a new vision of the post-‘Pippin’, pre-‘Spamalot’ world, where the middle ages can be vigorously mined for songs, dances and amusing sketches. Co-producer Donald Rice (son of the lyricist and co-librettist) is delighted with the job that’s been done on the work at Old Union Arches and who knows if the show now finds a new lease of life to take it even further.
Until 15 July 2017