When Midnight Strikes
The Drayton Arms Pub Theatre
24th October 2017
Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds are one of this country's most prolific and inventive musical writing teams, and yet they are still comparatively little known by the general public. One wonders why this is so: their songs are highly crafted, intensely melodic and memorable. Surely, they should make more of an impact. Over many years, their work has been commissioned by leading drama schools, and shows have been produced to fit the needs of companies wanting to produce varied stories with lots of parts, each well represented with solo material as well as a good mixture of duets, trios, quartets, ensembles and choruses.
It is, of course, very difficult to predict what will seize the public imagination, but in the case of this work, the answer may lie in the choice of story and the nature of the book, a kind of watered-down version of ‘Company'. Hammonds writes crisp, well honed dialogue, where hard-boiled wisecracks and inventive wordplay litter the conversation in an appealing and attractive way. However, the one thing he does not provide here is any sense of compelling dramatic interest, or deeper insights into human character, with the result that, despite the super-abudance of great numbers, there is little in the end to keep the show afloat. By the time we reach the end of its playing time, it has slipped beneath the level of our interest and we struggle to recall any salient point of focus. This is a huge pity. Songs in this score, like ‘I never learned to type', have become – deservedly – famous around the world. But, like many great songwriters before them – the Gershwins, Rodgers and Hart, Kern and Hammerstein – their songs usually fare much better than the plots to which they have been attached.
Undeterred, enterprising fringe companies do revive their shows, and here we get another outing for the work set around the turn of the millennium, given stylish form by MKEC Productions at their home base of the charming Drayton Arms Pub Theatre. Victoria Francis provides a very stylish set design, evoking a chic Manhattan apartment with a spectacular view of the world-famous skyline (courtesy of a generously subsidised digital display panel, which lends the production a considerable level of gloss: projections by J Mark Pim). The cast, impeccably turned out by an uncredited costumier – did they do all their own outfits? – fit into this world like a glove. Producer Marc Kelly also directs, but the thinness of the book does him no favours and he often seems at a loss to know what to do with a stage full of partygoers, who more frequently seem static rather than animated; there also seems to be no choreographer credited and this company may want to change that omission in future shows: these musical numbers really do need expert presentation – a little bit of basic blocking is really not enough to do them justice (assistant director is Christian Bullen).
The band, on the other hand, Oli Rew on keyboard with Dominic Veall on cello, are integrated into the set in a wonderfully plausible way: but the direction doesn't draw them in as much as it could – again, this is an area that may need more forethought. The lighting works well enough and perhaps this can be credited to technical management from Andy Hill.
But it is to the delivery of the many musical numbers that we turn for salvation, although the show seems to be missing an opening number: the play begins with extensive dialogue that serves no purpose other than to get people on stage. Producer Elizabeth Chadwick casts herself in the leading role of Jennifer West, and is most at home in the ‘belt' register of her several numbers. One cannot help but feel that her performance would be even stronger if another pair of eyes was brought in to guide her to make more sense of her part's starkly differentiated transitions. Simon Burr, on the other hand, plays down the impact of his musical numbers, choosing to grow more through the acting of his role, and very convincing he seems, too: having seen him in several parts now, he seems to be developing in a most promising way and I would not be surprised to see his career taking some interesting turns in the future.
Of the rest of the cast, Victoria George is a capable Zoe, James Dangerfield a vivacious Greg West, Stephanie Lyse an apt Nicole, Andrew Truluck a well modulated Edward, Marcia Sommerford a feisty Rachel and Kelly himself turns in a creditably poised and camp Bradley, with Georgina Nicholas's Twyla helping things along, and Matthew Boyd being a solid Alex and the fiersome neighbour Murial, softened by the spirit of New Year and renewal, in the experienced hands of Victoria Waddington. The show was adorned in a most memorable and beautiful way by Ellie Nunn as the omnipresent maid, Josephina, reminding us that this company, above all, is about giving new talent a chance to experiment and shine in unfamiliar repertoire.
Overall, it's great fun, and a worthwhile feather in the cap of a restlessly ambitious company that is doing much to enable a more effective passage across the all-too-tricky bridge between drama school and industry career. MKEC Productions have already shown themselves to be masters of the form, when they work with strong material. When their chosen subjects are less secure, then they do have their work cut out for them: possibly, in future, they might want to draw in a few more creatives to help strengthen their overall effectiveness. I think they're ready to do that now.
Runs until November 12