Finborough Theatre Spring 2016
This modest little musical receives its world premiere at one of London's most adventurous fringe theatres, and proves a pleasantly lightweight entertainment if not much more.
According to a note in the published text, writer-lyricist-cocomposer (with Mark Collins)-director Phil Willmott was originally commissioned some years ago to write a large-scale musical for the Bristol Hippodrome but funding problems got in the way of that production and a hoped-for West End transfer.
The musical languished in Willmott's files until he downsized it to fit the Finborough.
I'm inclined to think that this adventure was ultimately for the best, because a larger production would have exposed how thin and fragile the material is.
The story is based on historical fact. In the 1820s a woman was presented to English society as an oriental princess and, largely through speaking gibberish and playing on a fascination for the exotic, had a season in the sun before being exposed as a runaway housemaid escaping the poorhouse.
While book writer Willmott touches on the woman's motives, allowing for brief forays into Marxism and feminism, and adds a romantic plot just for convention, his real interest is in how she got away with it.
The narrative spine of the musical and the source of much of its humour is everyone's eagerness to be fooled, either to meet their own emotional needs, to bathe in her reflected glory, to protect their own images once they've committed to her, or just to join the bandwagon.
The songs are pleasant without being in any way special or memorable. Inevitably there are occasional echoes of Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and Schonberg, and even a big Jerry Herman-style Mame/Dolly number, but not to the extent of reducing the score to pastiche.
To maintain the satiric tone and keep the story moving along, Willmott turns one of the historical figures into a chorus and narrator, and Phil Sealey gives the evening's strongest performance as the amiable country squire who was the Princess's first victim but who has achieved a bemused and amused ironic distance.
Sarah Lawn gives the satire some welcome leavening warmth as the squire's sentimental and motherly lady.
The romantic leads are, as is the norm in musicals, relatively faceless and not especially defined or individualised, though Nikita Johal and Christian James make an attractive couple and sing well.
She is more successful with a Les Miz-flavoured dramatic song about the poverty she is running from than with the Lloyd Webber-style anthem clearly meant to be the show's big song.
Director Willmott has had previous success on the Finborough's postage-stamp-sized stage, but this time it comes close to defeating him, and even without the entire cast of ten onstage things get cluttered, and choreographer Thomas Michael Voss's dances all keep you worried that one false step will lead to a pile-up of fallen bodies.
This is a small show that in some ways would have been better off even smaller. But its smallness is much of its charm.
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