Julian Eaves reviews I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical, a review by Alexander S Bermange at Crazy Coqs.
I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical
11th April 2018 3 Stars
Comedy, it is frequently observed, is harder to play than tragedy, and few branches of comedy are more exacting than ‘comic songs’. Alexander S Bermange is a master of this difficult art, and has for years gathered around him a loyal and enthusiastic following for his skits and parodies found amongst the popular live chat shows of Radio 4, and so on. He has brought out a smashing double CD, featuring a gaggle of top drawer comedy turns (from Christopher Biggins to Miriam Margolyes), more than once packed out the Matcham Theatre at the Hippodrome, and now he arrives to play to capacity audiences at the lovely intimate room at Piccadilly in a two-week residency that gives handsome recognition to his skills.
These really are the most wonderfully written and excitingly conceived songs. Few people today – in this country, at least – can master the intricacies of rhyme in the way that Bermange can; and there is significant pleasure to be derived from hearing these wonderful ‘escapades’ into punning, twisting lyrical creation. No one understands form better than he, nor how to pace the contents of a song, or how to position its climaxes for greatest impact. This is a masterclass in how to write wonderfully for comic performers.
In addition to having Alex himself at the piano – from where in addition to being a superbly sensitive and thoughtful accompanist he gets to sing a couple of numbers in his characteristically mordant, ironic voice – we get a splendid quartet of West End stars to give magnificent performances of well over a dozen other numbers. And we could hardly wish for a better line-up: Suzie Mathers, Oliver Savile, Liam Tamne and Diana Vickers all give of their very best and there is a zesty show-biz chemistry between them. Director Paul Foster has been brought in to shape the material, and he has some fun with the opening and closing numbers in particular, using the full potential of the space inventively. Most of the numbers, though, are given ‘out front’ as simple solo turns. And, generally speaking, that is how they are written. Furthermore, they have taken a decision to give the evening a ‘theme’ of disappointed artistic aspiration. So, while in earlier shows there was a broad range of subject matter, here the compass is much narrower. This presents certain challenges in maintaining a feeling of variety.
Most of the ‘characters’ represented are failures of one sort or another. Now, it is perfectly true that the British love to side with the underdog; however, when these underdogs are victims – mostly – of self-delusion, we begin to yearn for something different. This, it has to be said, we emphatically get in the one, lone example of a winner on display here: the ghastly ego represented in the virtuoso grandstanding piece that is ‘The Diva’s In The House’, a stunning treat in the hands of a master craftsperson like Suzie Mathers and one that justifiably stops the show with her breath-taking display of styles, tones, range and perfect comedic timing. But there is no real reason why the heroic tenor of Liam Tamne, or the warm, genial light baritone of Oliver Savile, or the lucent mezzo of Diana Vickers could not shine equally well, were they given material sufficiently distinct and engaging with which to work. But even though all the individual songs are all very, very well written, in terms of subject matter they are all very like each other. They, as also elsewhere Mathers, are being asked to plough an ever narrower furrow. Of course, we understand that it is the intention of the writer to explore precisely that given milieu: however, such is the power of his writing that he says a great deal with a little amount of material. He is a supremely intelligent writer, and we would gladly hear other things from him, rather than the same thing repeated possibly more than strictly necessary.
Maybe another member of the artistic team could be brought in to get a fresh look at this wonderful oeuvre and to showcase it as brilliantly as ‘Diva’, or how to introduce broader scope in mood and outlook. Meanwhile, Jerome van den Berghe is here as co-arranger (with the composer), and it seems that he is mainly responsible for the handsomely written ensembles. These are very ‘West End’, very high-gloss, and – ultimately – make it increasingly hard to believe that the singers really are the down-at-heel, no-hopers they are (mostly) meant to represent. Added to that, they all look utterly gorgeous. All credit to them for presenting themselves so well! However, even though, for instance, Tamne turns on some pretty fascinating accents, nothing can fill the yawning chasm between the non-entities he is meant to represent and the thrilling star he clearly is. He, like Savile, has covered and/or played Raoul in ‘Phantom’, and it’s easy to see why. They’re both terrific. But here, in this format, they don’t really convince as people who haven’t quite made it. Vickers, with her extensive acting background, you’d think, could easily do excellent justice to a part that was written to reflect her characters. Instead, the between-the-songs patter the cast are occasionally given to read (sometimes new enough to be on cards) is formed of bland, conventional transitions that don’t really support the ‘theme’ of the production, still less to they get inside the people they are meant to be.
Oh, well, such is the fun to be had in trying to get things ‘right’ in this very slippery genre, revue. This package speaks loudly to the head and there are moments when the heart is engaged, too. Bermange, I’m sure, will keep on perfecting his technique and one of these days it will all fall into place. He is a brilliant writer and finding an ever stronger position in the British entertainment scene. Onwards and upwards. Go and see this show to catch the next stage in the journey. There are many magnificent individual moments here, and – who knows – maybe over the course of the run there will be some occasional adjustments to how the whole thing is pitched.
I Wish My Life Were Like A Musical run from the 9-15 and 17 April 2018
Writes book, music and lyrics of new musicals. Currently completing, ‘Generation Rent’, a contemporary college-reunion comedy. New project: ‘Kate The Great’, set in the City. Previous productions with: Iris Theatre; LOST Theatre; So-and-So’s Arts Club; Chichester Festival Theatre (National Theatre Connections); Courtyard Theatre; Arc Theatre, Trowbridge; Harlequin Theatre, Redhill. Also for Royal Court Young People’s Theatre, Edinburgh Fringe, National Youth Theatre.
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