Last Updated on 14th September 2016
12 September 2016
Few fringe productions can boast a row of celebrity guests in the audience like this one on opening night: Eric Idle; Tim Minchin; Prof Brian Cox; Tracy Ullman. And yet, there they all were, and more great names from the world of theatre, music, television and entertainment, lined up on the benches of The Cockpit, to witness the arrival of this extraordinary new musical theatre event; the premiere of ‘27’. At the entrance to the little theatre (just 170 seats), stretched a red carpet in front of a photo call gallery glowing with the logos of the show and one of the main sponsors, Pineapple dance studios (generous donors of abundant rehearsal space and time). Clearly, what we were about to see was going to be something special.
Indeed, from the first moment you set foot in the auditorium of The Cockpit – a modestly sized space down a Marylebone side-street – you gasp in astonishment: designer Nick Eve’s magnificent spindly white metal set and blazing light display make the place seem three times larger than it is: you know you have left behind the world of small-scale fringe theatre and found yourself in the presence of, in the words of its brilliant tyro producer, Adam Pritchard, a ‘big show that just happens to be in a small space’.
The heightened state of excitement is exactly what you need to follow this epic re-telling of the legend of Orpheus, discoverer of music and song, re-located into the modern rock star age. The scene is set through the declamatory narration of The Fates, the exemplary Jodie Jacobs, wonderfully supported by newcomers Maisey Bawden and Eloise Davies. From their opening scene, the small hairs begin to stand up on the back of your neck, and you feel – for the first of many times through the course of the show – the thrill generated by this stunning piece.
Sam Cassidy, writer and co-director, casts his divinely inspired hero, aptly realised with industry-level credentials by Greg Oliver, as the most commercially savvy unit in a combo also comprising Max (Jack Donnelly) and Jason (Ryan Gibb): the Argonauts. Rather like Cocteau’s ‘Orphee’, the supernatural characters here appear in the guise of ordinary mortals, only occasionally betraying their extra-human powers. Tempted by Ms. M (pitch-perfect Lucy Martin), Orpheus does a deal with the CEO of Hades Records (frighteningly seductive Ryan Molloy) in a plot move that seems to suggest the transit of Faust, especially in the numerous distractions with which he is then plied, and to whose charms he all too readily succumbs. Distressed, Orpheus’ ideal girlfriend, Amy (Cassie Compton, in lusciously fine voice), is ‘bitten’ by the ‘snake’ of substance abuse, and dies. That’s the first half.
After the interval, and a splendid solo lament that is perhaps the musical high-point of the show (I can still hear it ringing in my ears two days later!… ‘I’m alive, and I don’t know why’), Orpheus also OD’s, propelling himself into the realm of shadows, and we follow his mission into the underworld in search of his beloved. A number of original twists ensue, as the Orphic and Faustian plots are wound ever closer together, until the protagonist, having attained a Buddha-like level of self-knowledge (dare I say… ‘Nirvana’?), is released from his suffering. And that’s it.
This simple story is threaded through with magnificent musical numbers, demonstrating great variety and virtuosity from Cassidy and his co-songwriter, Matt Wills. Cassidy also co-directs with Ms Phillips, with the choreography coming from Ryan-Lee Seager and Ms. Martin. Mark Benheim is responsible for the orchestrations: a series of pre-recorded tracks in mixed ‘live’ with the stage voices, very much in the manner of putting together a session in a recording studio, and includes the only ‘live’ element: fantastic guitar solos played from a platform high above the audience. Matt Nalton does the music direction, with beautifully clear and well-balanced sound from Harry Barker. The company is kitted out in Lucy Alexander’s simply fabulous costumes.
Seven years ago, writer-composer-lyricist Sam Cassidy began this journey, with the other creatives and on the team coming in gradually along the way. The arrival of producer Adam Pritchard on the scene made all the difference in raising the ambition of the project: he has enabled them to present an industry-only workshop performance a year ago at the Union Theatre, then a showcase of selections presented at The Cockpit as part of Tori Allen-Martin’s ‘Made In London’ residency in the spring, and to offer this splendid 6-week engagement. A very considerable investment has been raised and spent wisely to develop the show as far as it has got: the hunt is now on for the next direction to take with it, and the means to finance that development. Having Arlene Phillips in the mix (since 2013) is a massive help to this whole process. A year ago, I sat in a room at Laban Dance Centre, Greenwich, with Arlene, Anthony van Laast and Alistair Darling on the panel, and a collection of industry people discussing the need for urgent action to make really new, exciting, refreshing musical theatre happen.
This current production looks like an object lesson in how to fuse the best of experienced industry leaders with dynamic new talent. And the writing-directing-choreographing team here are scoring a massive hit with their debut project: doubtless, they will be using the Cockpit run to make further refinements to the script. For a first show, it demonstrates dazzling maturity and skill. I’m already booked to go back for a second view of this stunning production later this week. Get your tickets now!
Photos: Nick Ross