REVIEW: Fanatical, Playground Theatre ✭✭✭

Julian Eaves reviews Fanatical, a new musical by Matt Board and Reina Hardy now playing at the Playground Theatre.

Fanatical Playground Theatre
Suanne Braun in Fanatical. Photo: Scott Rylander

Playground Theatre
14th November 2018
3 Stars
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A good two decades ago, a terrific spoof sci-fi comedy scored a huge hit with a story set at a fan convention: ‘Galaxy Quest’ is one of the most perfect and refreshing takes on this trope we have seen, its achievement residing in no small way on its ingenious melding of fantasy with human everyday reality, and its delightful exploration of the tensions between those two realms.  Now, plenty of time later, a couple of fairly new writers (music and lyrics by Matt Board, and book by Reina Hardy) have cooked up their own story and turned it into a musical.  They’ve been working on it for a good ten years or so, and – you’d think – by now they would pretty much have sussed out how to make it work.  Well, you might think that.  However, although for the past five of those years it’s been doing the rounds of ‘workshopland’, from Chicago to London to New York, and with Neil Marcus’ outfit, The Stable, behind it, and now in a full staging for the first time at the enterprising Playground Theatre in a capable production by emerging director Grace Taylor, the show is still a pretty long way from scoring anything like the success that could be had by a venture like this.  Inevitably, it becomes an interesting game to wonder why.

To begin with the strong points.  The score contains some of the most beautiful new writing I have heard in a while.  The stand out number is definitely the second act’s extraordinary confessional, ‘Collected’, which exhibits the songwriting talents of Board at his most skilful, heart-felt and lyrically suave: it is a priceless number and deserves widespread attention – in fact, it is so breath-taking that, once heard, you know you will never forget.  Luckily, it also gets introduced by the most experienced and gifted hand available in this cast, Tim Rogers, whose strong and yet immensely flexible dramatic tenor wraps itself around every subtle and entrancing contour of the song, with devastating effect.  Quite frankly, hearing this made me glad I’d sat through hearing the rest of the show.  The rest of the score also contains many handsome tunes: Sophie Powles, with a robust, clear and solid mezzo, gets a good few of these, and I hope we’ll be seeing a great deal more of her in musicals – she clearly has the potential to do a lot more in this branch of theatre.  However, it is ‘Collected’ that sets the standard.

Fanatical musical review
Stephen Frost in Fanatical. Photo: Scott Rylander

Suanne Braun is another more seasoned professional, with a sterling track record.  Her part, alas, doesn’t really give her much variety, and the music written for her doesn’t feel as inspired or interesting; she does what she can to make something of her role of the organiser or presenter of the convention event we are eavesdropping on, but she is limited by the narrow scope of the script.  When she does get a chance at doing something inventive, all Hardy’s book allows her is to use her body as a lure.  I was surprised and a little depressed at that development: is this 2018 or 1958?  The script doesn’t really give her much more respect than that, or allow her character any more dimensions.  Why?  Is it because too often Hardy seems swamped by the mechanical difficulties of marshalling her forces and loses sight of the human stories they generate, with the net result that her dominant ‘theme’ comes across as an obsessive dedication to sci-fi graphic novels: forgive me, but this is arguably a shade too niche for my attention span.

A compelling character who is grossly under used is the creator of the convention story, ‘Angel 8’, who is played in a frantic turn by the gifted comedian Stephen Frost: he won the best laugh of the evening, and in fact the only one that made me laugh out loud, with his honest to goodness portrayal of a bitter, destructive failure, the writer Stephen Furnish.  His persona is far and away the most fascinating on offer in this tale otherwise laden with thin stereotypes: I wonder why the writers haven’t long since glimpsed the potential he has to offer and decided to run with him a lot more, they achieve some success in taking an unappealing character and transforming him into something unusual and unexpectedly engaging. Yet, we had to be patient until the closing minutes of the first act to get our first look at him – a long and increasingly tedious wait.  When he finally does arrive, you think: ‘But this person is so much more interesting than anyone else we have met; why can’t we spend more time in his company?’  Possibly, that is something the writers might wish to give some serious thought to (while also ditching the chauvinistic anachronisms).  As it is, Hardy’s script asks few searching questions of her characters; where ‘plot’ is required, a lot of time and effort goes into elaborate over-exposition of points that the audience grasps, apparently, much faster than the writers: a case in point is the labored business about the ‘lost’ script for the final episode of the series.

Fanatical review Fanatical Sci Fi Musical
Sophie Powles in Fanatical. Photo: Scott Rylander

The other characters are pretty much of a muchness, and the cast do with them the little that the script permits.  Theodore Crosby, Amber Sylvia Edwards, Amy Lovatt and Eddy Payne make up the numbers in this chamber-sized convention, kept busy by Anthony Whiteman’s choreography that perches precariously on P J McEvoy’s slightly awkward set.  The design is a central four-posted gantry on a raised revolve dominating the space, and sight-lines, of a stage that is faced by the audience on two sides of its square; the gantry does not stay still, however, it revolves, so at least one of its pillars is always placed in the way of some of the audience.  This is one of those sets that maybe looked good as a model but is a bit of a nightmare in practice.  With limited wing-space and nowhere to go above or below, Taylor and Whiteman do what they can to keep the show on the move, but with multiple short scenes and changes of location and time they have their work cut out for them.

Rachel Sampley seems to have only two ways of lighting it, and switches between them in a simple manner.  Andy Graham’s sound fares better, but the acoustics in the room are challenging and perhaps less amplification might have made for an easier auditory experience.  The band, led by John Reddell and supervised by Jim Henson, is keyboards heavy in sound, which is odd, given the rock-genre palette of musical styles, and often we get a piano-sound accompaniment to musical numbers which sounds more like a rehearsal than a production score.  This is a pity.  The score is often highly attractive and really merits a more thought-through sound: for instance, a couple of guitars alongside Tristan Butler’s percussion and drums, and less emphasis on Reddel’s first keys might have made for a more idiomatic and agreeable impact.

Marcus says that they’re currently looking for publishers and his confidence in the project is admirable.  Personally, I think the team could consider a significant re-write.  The content of good quality here is really very, very good indeed.  Possibly, that merits a serious sit down and working through before anything further is done.  The company have a four-week run in Latimer Road in which to try it out on many different audiences, and to tinker with the production (should they feel so inclined).  A lot can be learnt in this process.  Maybe they will come to see more potential for development of this work: it could be really something great.

Until 9 December 2018


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