Moby Dick The Musical
18 October 2016
‘Call Me Ishmael!’ is a musical title just screaming out loud – and stamping, and rolling around on the floor perhaps – to be made. And maybe it has been… The opening words of Herman Melville’s magisterial epic of Man in his Eternal Struggle with Nature lay themselves open to parodic musical spoof, and they get a lot of that in this splendid musical by Hereward Kaye (music, lyrics and book) and Robert Longden (book, music and lyrics), here getting a much-deserved outing in celebration of its 25th anniversary at the ever-resourceful laboratory of musical theatre on Union Street. Among its many appealing features, without a doubt the best reason to go and see it is the magnificent score: two dozen musical numbers (the show is 80% through-composed) of rare energy and infectiousness, which when you hear them feel like flowers opening inside you, filling you with joy. Last night, at the official opening, Kaye himself was on hand to see just how fresh and appealing the score still sounds, and – indeed – was the show’s original West End producer, Cameron Macintosh. The 11-strong cast put over the numbers with brilliant commitment, supported by a smart 4-piece rock band (under the masterful command of ace MD, on lead keys, Lee Freeman).
The show’s premise is a funny one and is simply expressed. We are at St Godley’s Academy for Girls, sat in the gym, and – as directed and choreographed by the ebulliently energetic Andrew Wright – the front rows perched on benches, while being addressed by the extravagant Headmistress, Dame Rhoda Hottie (Anton Stephans, dragged up to the mascara-heavy eyeballs, and with a flamboyant sense of couture – Juliette Craft, costumes, assisted by Amber Harding). It is announced that the school is being threatened with sanctions by the dreaded Ofsted; ‘a dramatic improvement’ is demanded; so, the head, taking the school inspectors at their literal word, announced the presentation of a musical in the gym! It is written ‘bespoke’ by one of the students, Miss Dinah Sores (do you understand from these names the kind of universe conjured up by the writers?). This is a charming framing device, and it works best when it is held up directly in front of our eyes.
However, the precise reasons for choosing this mid-19th-century American philosophical yarn of whale-hunting folk (memorialised in the title) rather escaped me, and that is perhaps one of the little loose gremlins in the script that this production might be able to bring into sharper focus and enable subsequent re-writes to chase off. There are a few more. Lying on our seats waiting for us in the auditorium, were pamphlets summarising the romance’s plot and list of characters. Possibly, this is also information that could usefully be combined within the exposition, giving it a greater sense of linear structure and clarity. As it is, the show still seems like a staging of a ‘concept album’, rather than a drama able to hold the stage in its own right.
When it came to the cast, we can accept a Miss Frinton-esque gender hop for the matronly schoolma’am, but why were some of the ‘girls’ played by boys? Again, something quite funny and entertaining could be made of this. And perhaps it is, but if so then the words explaining it were lost in the rumbustious fun of the performance. Of course, these are early days for the theatre space, and it will take time and patient care to iron out any kinks in its functioning. Here, Gareth Tucker’s sound design makes some headway in solving some recently discovered problems relating to audibility, although verbal clarity in amplified lyrics is occasionally still less than desirable, with balance issues between musicians and singers remaining for the present fascinatingly complex. Tim Deiling’s lighting was more sure-footed, however.
These technical matters aside, the cast here is a superb one, and at least vocally made much of its material. Stephan’s rich baritone warmed the heart in his many dramatic numbers. Then, next in the billing, Brenda Edwards (as Miss Mona Lott playing Ahab’s wife, Esta) has never sounded better: of all the players, her voice was perhaps best attuned to the particular style and sensibility of Kaye and Longdon’s score, and her numbers give her maybe the widest range (although the plot makes her disappear for rather a long time in the middle of the story). The narrator here is Rachel Ann Raynham (as Dinah, playing Ishmael). Rather than use the narrator function as a welcome and serene respite from the madcap frenzy of the story, here she is enmeshed within its nets, pinioned by its harpoons, and beached upon its shores: by blurring the lines between the story and the storyteller, we tend to lose the precious distinction between them. Consider how wonderfully the narrator in ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ balances the idiocy of the narrative with calm, unflappable poise, making us enjoy both so much more. Here, the ‘spoof-within-a-parody’ may be over-egging the pudding just a touch.
There are other shipmates aboard the whale-chasing vessel, the Pequod: Perola Congo is Miss Charity Case, playing Queequeg; Laura Mansell is Amanda Poker as Starbuck; Glen Facey is Miss Buster Cherry as Pip; Rebekah Lowings is Daisy Mae Blow as Tashtego; Aimee Hodnett is Fonda Cox as Stubb; Grant McConvey is Wayne Kerr as Elijah; Sam Barrett is Mr Earl Lee Riser as Coffin; and the Voice of Moby Dick himself was voiced by the present-in-spirit Russell Grant. The interesting thing about the play-within-a-play format is that, at its best, it usually switches back and forth between stories, so we remember the differences, and also the similarities, between them. The classic example of that is possibly ‘Kiss Me, Kate’, and it might serve as a useful guide towards clarifying how to balance the script here. As it is, the return to the ‘normality’ of the school, where everyone has names drawn from Benny Hill or the Carry On films, comes as something of a surprise.
Andrew Wright’s production does what it can to make us concentrate on the show’s many felicities. However, it may take more than bracing direction and lively movement to bring a greater feeling of cohesion to this still fairly loose assemblage of magnificent parts. I’m sure the creatives are up to the challenge, and the intrepid producers, Amy Anzel and Matt Chisling, are ready to take it onto that next leg of its migration.
Until 12 November 2016