16th November 2017
When you hear that a pair of writers have been working on a show for 10 years before finally bringing it to the stage to find out what it works like in reality, you are – perhaps wisely – cautious. Why has it taken so long? Is it going to be as good as ‘Mormon’, which took about the same amount of time? Or, is there another reason that it has been so delayed? Of course, you’re thrilled to hear about new writers finally making it to the stage with a zany new show about a revivified Mad Monk dealing with … of all people… Tony Blair. And then you wonder: isn’t Tony just a bit old hat? Has this show really moved with the times?
Well, yes and no. The scenes with Tony Blair, played by writer-producer-director-co-star Andrew Hobbs (a multi-disciplinary role that rings a fair few warning bells), are probably the most successful: Hobbs wrote them for himself, and he knows how to do himself justice. His style is very Canal Cafe Theatre, very News Revue, and he is quite amusing in that vein. He is not, however, a typical writer of dramas, let alone musicals. Neither is the composer, Alastair Smith, a competent MD and writer of incidental music for companies like British Touring Shakespeare. The distance between that role and making a score for a musical play is, however, immense, and much forebearance must be shown to him if this first foray into this very taxing form is not as perfectly successful as it might be. While there is much to be said for his apt imitations of well known rock groups’ styles – from Aerosmith to country to Laibach and beyond – there is also a worrying tendency for his melodic writing to be very literal, rather plodding musicalisations of lyric lines that rarely show the same character or wit as the dialogue written for Mr Blair. In fact, when faced with the other figures in this somewhat sombre and depressing story of decay and death in the Kremlin, he can become quite sluggishly morose; he gets bogged down in mood-setting when he might more usefully turn his attentions to moving the story forwards at a rather more cheerful pace. The end result is that it all ends up feeling a lot longer than it really is.
The static and not very well thought out direction doesn’t help. Nor does the design, by … well, who did do the design? Nobody is credited. It looks like a rock gig set up, with four ‘faux’ gantry pillars in front of the onstage band (more of whom in a moment). Is it also the work of the tireless Mr Hobbs? I wouldn’t be surprised. If ever there was a case for proving that cutting corners on creatives’ salaries to get the show – somehow – onto the stage and in front of some kind of public is quite the worst possible route to take, then this production makes it, in spades. There is choreography, of sorts, by Nicky Griffiths, but one honestly wonders how much time this veteran of the West End had to hone her cast into shape and then develop any kind of concept for the production. As things are, it all looks very haphazard and ragged.
Yes, the cast do their best. Apart from the dominating presence of Mr Hobbs, there is a highly creditable turn by Maria Alexe as The Emperor of Russia (a kind of female Ivan Groszny role, with songs), and a charming performance by Tanya Truman as the ostensible ‘love interest’ Svetlana. Jake Byrom does what he can to make Rasputin believable, and Barry Greene is a vocally very attractive Anton, as well as being an Associate Producer on this ambitious project. Other parts are taken by Jay Joel, Tristan Ward, Robyn Hampton, Charlotte Shaw and Jessica Townsley. They all work very hard and do everything possible to make you like them. It’s a tough call in a show that really can’t make up its mind about whether it wants you to take it seriously, or just laugh at its slightly dated and warmed over jokes.
As for the band, Connor Fogel keeps them well together and – it has to be said – the sound engineering favours them handsomely against the singers, whose voices often vanish beneath the larding of his rock combo. This doesn’t help anyone. The show is going to have to fight very hard to find an audience and, honestly, please don’t drown out the singers’ voices. Please. Having said that, the drummer is very nifty. Just put him behind a perspex wall, please. Such things exist for a reason.
Until 10 December 2017