Murder For Two
The Other Palace Studio
6th March 2017
The great, central achievement of this production is in the two-handed coup of Jeremy Legat and Ed MacArthur’s dazzling performance as duetting singer-actor-dancer pianists. If ever you wondered what it would be like if Ferris and Milnes (for example), suddenly had a whole show built around them to showcase their magnificent talents, now you have your answer. This story of gumshoe sleuthing perfectly frames a dozen terrific numbers where Legat and MacArthur blaze a trail of acrobatic, madcap keyboard capers. For these magnificent turns alone the price of the ticket is more than justified. Indeed, you will be hard pressed to find their equal anywhere.
Director Luke Sheppard (once again working with his trusted producer, Paul Taylor-Mills, who brings this to The Other Palace Studio after an initial run at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury) also stages the musical numbers with considerable finesse and precision on the tiny Studio stage. After searching long and hard, he has found the ideal pair in his actors, who – coming to the gig from two completely different directions – complement each other with glorious relish and good humour. Legat has learnt his piano part from the score, but MacArthur plays entirely by ear and through laborious study of videos of hands on a manual playing his part. Extraordinarily, expert MD Tom Attwood has found a way of fusing together these utterly separate sensibilities so they appear entirely of a piece with one another. The execution of the musical numbers is a heady delight and one that for a long time to come you will be glad to have seen and wondered at.
And, in fact, at its heart, this is all that this show really needs. Indeed, it often seems to be crying out for a black box staging, perhaps with a mirror back wall, and a revolve for the piano. Everything else – really – is created by the imaginations of the two performers, one of whom plays one character, the investigating cop, who is himself pretending to be a higher-ranking detective, and the other who plays countless ‘suspects’ in a bizarrely complex murder case. As it happens, the show is often presented in just such a minimalist way. The long-running Off-Broadway production opted for a fairly simple, plain, clean-lined approach, and it is easy to see how and why that may well have contributed to its enormous success.
For whatever reason, a different approach has been selected for this production. Gabriella Slade’s quasi-distressed naturalistic set is filled with additional materials, some of which get used, some of which do not, but all of which – in this cosy space – add up to create a strong impression of realism. The language of the script, however, is anything but realistic. This is a two-hander where one actor, Legat, must constantly switch from one character to another in a manner that is rarely, if ever, at ease with the meticulously sourced and finished surroundings provided by Slade. As a matter of fact, the lack of common ground between staging and performance is so marked, especially in the plot-heavy, longer first half, it is difficult to warm to the story or care about its outcome.
Added to this is the Americans relationship with musicals that is very, very different from our own. As with ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’, this show rides on the train of a national obsession with musical theatre, and a fond reverence for the genre that is in all but name its national art form. The common belief in the medium that is so widespread in the States, however, does not pertain here, where musical theatre is still regarded as a bit of an oddity, a poor relation to the ‘proper’ theatre. It might be useful to compare the colossal success of ‘In The Heights’ that played for three years (in a large theatre) on Broadway and the herculean struggle Taylor-Mills and Sheppard had to get their Southwark Playhouse production to play in a smaller space in King’s Cross – a run initially programmed for four months and then, through sheer force of will and belief in the excellence of the material, extended repeatedly to embrace a handsome 15-month stretch. And ‘In The Heights’ is a much easier sell than this curious oddity.
The challenge of finding an audience is magnified with an entertainment that doesn’t tell a story so much as deconstruct one. What we get turns out to be much less like a ‘conventional’ musical comedy (although it is billed as one) and much more like a Steven Berkoff attack on preconceptions and comfortable over-familiarity. Remember: the title tells us there are only two people present. So, who are they? To pitch this show to British audiences, one might even countenance presenting it in the style of Berkoff and Joan Collins’ ‘Decadence’: it has much of the same crazy, dissociative, anarchic, self-indulgent mayhem about it. That kind of stage language might well do much to bridge the gap between its many peculiarities and the public here. It would also give the material an ‘edge’ that is perhaps needed in any tale of life-and-death matters, of deception, betrayal, desire, greed, revenge, and so on. Here, the script gives us fey quips about cups of tea and purloined ice-cream, almost as if it were trying to push us back into the world of Andy Hardy.
And yet would the convulsively bright cheerfulness of the music (by Joe Kinosian) and the crisp, intellectually stimulating lyrics (by Kellan Blair) really be at home there anymore than they are in the dusty film noir interior we get at The Other Palace? It is hard to say. The songwriters have also cooked up the book of the show, and that doesn’t seem to have done them any harm in the USA. One wonders if it will speak to British audiences with as much directness and appeal, however. Theatrically, it is a pretty static affair, with a lot of talk and virtually nothing in the way of action. The lights flicker occasionally (ask Chris Withers why), and there is much camp, knowing chit-chat across the fourth wall. True, something interesting does happen a good way through the second part, but that – while deliciously charming – also highlights the comparative lack of eventfulness elsewhere. But no matter. The writers’ sublimely inventive and brilliantly arranged songs will not fail to amaze and delight you. For the songs, go and enjoy yourself. Such self-gratification can’t kill you.
Photos: Scott Rylander