Julian Eaves reviews Striking 12 starring Declan Bennett and Bronte Barbe now playing at the Union Theatre, London.
The great lure of this production is the magnificent cast, and they provide the chief, indeed, pretty much the only reason to go and see it.
Declan Bennett is on top form as a lucid, lithe, energetic actor, with brilliantly clear delivery and faultless projection, even in the Union’s notoriously dangerous acoustics (sound design is not credited, but operated by Verena Prand); he is in actor-muso territory here again – as he was in ‘Once’ – and is forever having to snap up a well-worn guitar and blast out a few riffs, before racing on to the next tongue-twisting lyric (more of those later). His phrasing and balance are models of what is needed to remain always at the front of a sound, coming out to meet our ears, using his whole body to direct the voice – in spoken or sung mode – straight at us. This is one of the most skillful performances we’ve seen at the Union in a long while.
His co-star here is the multi-talented Bronte Barbe: a rapidly rising star of the West End and touring world, and so – like Declan – quite a draw for the modestly proportioned Union, a little fringe theatre tucked unobtrusively underneath the arches of Southwark, along Union Street, SE1. She is at her glorious best with the lower register, full-bodied mezzo writing, which lies so perfectly on her voice (singing here in an American accent). Less favourable to her is the higher tessitura demanded by other numbers in the score, not made any easier by the over-bright resonance of the room, making the sound clouded and muddied, and articulation at times well nigh impossible: it’s a pity they were not transposed, but I am not sure if MD Ashley Harvey had that latitude at her disposal.
Andrew Linnie’s accompaniment on piano is usually reliable and idiomatic for this soft-rock dominated score, enhanced and elaborated by Kate Robson-Stuart’s penetratingly lyrical violin and Leon Scott’s adept range as a percussionist, admonished by Danielle Kassarate’s occasional additional sounds, and their handsomely coordinated backing vocals. All three of the other ensemble players acquit themselves respectably enough with the text and moves that they are given: the director, Oliver Kaderbhai, also controls a lot of the movement, in which he is supported by co-choreographer Marah Stafford. Yet, the show’s direction – and dance – never quite seem to hit their mark.
Problems start to arise with designer Natalie Johnson’s oddly raised square platform, set at an angle, shrinking the available space in this already small venue. This seems odd, given the poppy, rhythmical character of the music, which so often seems to be yearning for something more expressive to be happening on stage than what we actually get. Perhaps the dance arrangements are taking their cue from the drab shelf units that are almost the only set to speak of? For a fairy-story, this show seems unusually intent on coming across as dowdy and tired as possible.
Add to that Alex Lewer’s slightly eccentric approach to lighting, which seems to dim up or down almost as if possessed by a mind of its own, and quite independently of any action happening – or not happening – on the stage. But the real demon threatening the cosy well-being of this modern take on Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Little Matchgirl’ is the dead-hand of the book by the combined efforts of Rachel Sheinkin and music and lyric writers Brendan Milburn and Valerie Vigoda. Sheinkin may best be known over here for her zippy, fastidiously alert comedy, ‘The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee’; here, alas, her acute mind seems to have deserted her – or been edited out by the songwriting team – and nothing of that show’s wit and charm make it into this script.
The book to this show ends up being as dull and bland – and as instantly forgettable – as the songs themselves. Kaderbhai has agreed with the authors some small amendments for this production, but to all intents and purposes what we are seeing here is what they wrote and what is printed and licensed by Theatrical Rights Worldwide. There is some fun to be had in trying to work out how to ‘fix’ the unholy mess that they have created, so abjectly lacking in dramatic interest or any discernible human journeys; however, that provides but cold comfort when you feel the show’s mere 70 minutes crawling by like a partially maimed rodent, left semi-dead on the doorstep by a proud pet cat.
Really. Artists of this quality do deserve better – much better – material. The creative team appear to have been defeated by the work’s many pitfalls, you can almost smell their despair as they track through each scene and episode, throwing ideas at the show, trying to get it to respond. Alas, none of the treatments work, and by the end of the surgery, the patient is pronounced dead on the slab.
One for the vault.
Until 23 December 2018