For years the name Xanadu was cultural polonium. The 1980s romantic comedy was so unbearably dreadful that it inspired John Wilson to create the Razzies, the now famous anti-Oscars to mark the worst of the year’s cinema.
So it’s little wonder that the playwright Douglas Carter Beane turned down the chance to write a musical based on the film. Alas he was eventually persuaded to give it a go and the result was a surprising musical hit, earning itself two Tony nominations.
The story spans two Venices – the mythical ancient Venice and 1980s Venice Beach in California. A Greek muse, Clio is sent to Earth in the form of Australian Kira to inspire Californians. She is afflicted by a curse from her jealous sitters and falls in love with an artist, Sonny, and helps him realise his dreams of opening a roller disco.
My first impressions of Xanadu were that it was going to be seat grippingly awful; the premise seemed flimsy and the chorus of ‘sisters’ was initially so shrill and loud that I was tempted to grab a pair of skates and head for the exits. Much to my relief, the mania soon settled down and the characters started to come into their own.
The show is the campest and silliest thing I’ve seen all year (and I watched Biggins in drag for two hours at West End Heroes). The score is as 80s as a Stock Aitken Waterman megamix, but makes up for its lack of variety with its infectious bubblegum spirit.
Carter Beane’s energetic and self-mocking script means that the show carries the audience along through reveling in its own daftness and acting as its own worst critic. It is littered with jabs at the original film and theatrical in-jokes; notably in a final confrontation Melpomene describes her partner Calliope as being absent due to ‘cast doubling’, whilst the actress playing Calliope looked sheepish in the background.
Xanadu could have faltered with a weaker cast but the performances are truly top drawer across the board. Samuel Edwards and Carly Anderson are perfect as Sonny and Clio, proving to be genuine quadruple threats (singing, dancing, acting, skating!). Edwards is exceptionally likeable as the gormless artist, whereas Anderson milks every drop of comedy out of her broad Aussie accent.
Amongst the rest of the cast, Alison Jiear packed a powerful voice as the scheming Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy. Lizzy Connolly was wickedly hilarious as her partner in crime Calliope; Connolly has a gift for entertaining facial expressions and precise comic timing, and is emerging as a superb character actor.
Nathan Wright’s choreography is inventive, using props such as phone boxes, office chairs and hula hoops as the basis for some exhilarating routines. Richard Brooker’s sound design, occasionally a problem at the Southwark Playhouse, was sharp and crystal clear.
Xanadu is a perfect show for an intimate venue like the Playhouse; a cultish and cheesy production that won over the audience through its energy and sense of fun. Taking a concept from a Razzie to a Tony is no mean feat – even an ugly duckling can become a theatrical swan.