This is the best new score in London right now, and you’d be crazy to miss it. Go and book now. Don’t bother reading the rest of this review, just go and get the booking in first, and then settle down to listen while I explain why.
The programme tells us that this is the 8th production of the show in just under three years, and so it just has to be the most thoroughly ‘developed’ new British musical on offer right now, doesn’t it? How many shows appear, are not that brilliant, and then vanish, never to be heard of again, or not for years and years? Not so this one. It’s never away for long. Not only that, although other projects are coming along, it is one of the first projects launched by producer-songwriter pairing, Hannah Elsy and Henry Carpenter, who are developing themselves along with it, not only as professionals but also as people: they are still both under 25. And here they are, in the West End, with new musical theatre work, beginning to collaborate with more established industry talent: this version is directed by Adam Lenson and the book is co-authored by Tom Crowley. With Lenson’s background in asking demanding questions of new work and finding brilliant ways to stage challenging new pieces and Crowley’s superb staging of ‘Shock Treatment’ at The King’s Head Theatre, hopes were running high for what they might come up with.
Oddly, perhaps, Lenson and Crowley don’t seem to have done much to change what has gone before. The show that we see here is – more or less – what we have seen before: entire scenes are played in ways that are strongly reminiscent of earlier productions; the shape of the plot is pretty much what existed, to begin with (even Caldonia Walton’s lively, if a little generic, choreography has made it barely altered into the latest version). Given that the leading creatives are quite capable of transforming what they are working on, this seems a little surprising. One is naturally curious to know what the reasons for that might be.
It is not as if the book and the staging of the show could not benefit with some wise and helpful outside attention. As things stand, there is a push-me-pull-you effect created by the two contrary worlds conjured up by the show that is in a constant battle for our attention – and credulity. On one hand, there is the ‘reality’ of Nat (feisty Shauna Riley, who has grown and grown with the piece) and Keith (another newcomer, Max Panks, making another attempt at making sense of his fairly thankless part): these are, for all their abundant faults, two entirely real people and the apartment they share forms the location for the entire story. Then, on the other hand, there are the intruder elements of the title figure – a transformative, phantom, possibly alien personality – and his ‘Friends’, one-dimensional minions in white boiler suits. The intruders, the aliens, also have the band on their side, who are all in the same white outfits and surround the apartment as if part of the furniture (and seem even more strung out than the singing and dancing pair of Lottie-Daisy Francis and Freya Tilly). It’s never entirely clear why.
But if this is ‘The Quentin Dentin Show’ – and it is presented to us as such, rather like a tacky TV entertainment – then why does it all happen in their living room? That is another question that, I think, the script does not resolve. Being in one room, the script has nowhere else much to go beyond stating who people are and what they do: we rarely get an opportunity to see them doing things. Nat and Keith pick at a meal, argue a bit, she goes for a walk, he shakes the radio, and then…. broadly speaking, they become the passive recipients of whatever Quentin Dentin wants to throw at them. We don’t get ‘shown’ his backstory, nor do we see the ‘allure’ of his world, except in pantomimic shadowing of his long descriptive speeches in their living room, which are presented as song and dance numbers (very good numbers, it has to be said, over and over again; but what are they doing there?). Even Marlowe, taking ‘Doctor Faustus’ on a similar trip, knew perfectly well that he had to get his victim out of his library pretty damn sharpish and actively mixing with his temptors, or lose the interest of his audience. Luckily, much of this can be simply ignored if one only listens to what the band does.
And what a band! Carpenter MDs on keys – and is pretty damn good at it, with guitar from no less a figure than industry legend Mickey Howard, and Archie Wolfman doing a fine job of laying down the beats on drums: it really is a superb trio and worth going to hear for its own sake, and they sound brilliant in Ethan James and Carpenter’s sound design. In fact, Henry’s new numbers for this production, in particular, mark him out as possibly one of the strongest new voices working in British musical theatre – and there are some fine ones out there. In the three years, he’s been working on this score, his talents have come on by leaps and bounds. He’s played Quentin on stage himself at Edinburgh. And now, having mastered the ‘attitude’ required to strike that particular pose, he is now going for the ‘heart’, and finding a big reservoir of human warmth in the show – qualities that, to be honest, are not really grasped, let alone reflected, by the book or direction, which still look and sound like a gimmicky student show.
There is barely a number here that doesn’t ‘land’ powerfully with the audience. The songs sound ‘true’, they come from the heart and speak the emotional journey of the show – if not that apparently followed by the characters who sing them. That is no fault of the performers. They are all accomplished artists, and they sing well: but, for instance, why does Luke Lane as Quentin persist in clasping his hands together tightly in front of his sternum – much in the manner of Tim Curry in the ‘Reception scene’ in ‘The Rocky Horror Show’? I mean, Tim didn’t keep that up for pretty much the whole show, so why does Luke have to? I’ve seen Lane act in other productions and I know he has a wider range of gestures than that. So why doesn’t he get to use them? His body language makes him uptight, stiff and difficult to warm to, while the script insists he’s some kind of great seducer. Does not compute.
And then there is ‘the mysterious voice’ (Freddie Fullerton). We hear a lot from this entity and by the end of play are none the wiser for it. Who, or what, was speaking? And why? And why is it in Nat and Keith’s living room before anything else gets going? Is it like the voice on the tape recorder in the basement of ‘Night of the Living Dead’? So, how does it then make its way into the radio? And ‘The Brain Machine’, that used to be quite scary, just isn’t anymore. Why? Too many elements of the show are strange in too many different ways for any sense of a definable, let alone credible, ‘other world’ to emerge. Lars Davidson, lighting designer, a late arrival on the team, does what he can with the rig available to him to make helpful distinctions, but there is only so much that he can achieve.
But, still, I say, never mind about all that. What you will take away from this show is the stunning score. This show has simply terrific numbers, like ‘The Quentin Dentin Show’, ‘Holiday’, ‘Life Is What You Want It To Be’, and many more, there are seventeen in total and they make up the best, and I mean the best new score that British musical theatre has produced in certainly the past few years. Yes, you heard me right. It’s a stonker. And you will be very, very glad you went to hear it. A recording? Let’s hope someone has the good sense to get this company preserved in an album. It rocks!
Until 29 July 2017