Two new musicals in London this week revealed opposite problems: Burlesque, at Jermyn Street Theatre, has a little bit too much of everything; and EX, at Soho Theatre, has too little of anything (a problem its lead lothario character admits to suffering from inside his underpants).
Excess is a better problem to have (in every department) - it means there is material to work with that can be pared back. It’s difficult, with the second show, to see what there is to build on.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I love (and champion) musicals more than most things; even Graham Cowley, the producer of Ex, looked at me tentatively before Tuesday’s opening and said how nervous he was that I was there, since “you’re an authority” (his words, not mine).
But after I reported my feelings on Twitter after the performance, he replied publicly, “Are you blind and deaf? What Soho Theatre were you in last night? The Soho Theatre I was in contained a funny play, with lovely songs, greeted with joy by the audience.”
That’s, of course, inevitably a subjective take; but a colleague who saw it the night before told me by e-mail, “When I saw EX I thought the entire audience would leave at the interval. Still not sure why they didn’t. Some maniac was shrieking approval at the end but he doubtless had a hand in its concoction!”
I’m not saying that either of us are necessarily right, and I also don’t think that this discourse should descend into a slanging match; it’s always my hope that critics can be part of the creative discussion around a show and its future development. I realise that a highly negative critical response might bring that development to an end, so critics have a lot of responsibility; but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. Sometimes people need to move on from something if it is palpably not working.
Inevitably, too, Mr Cowley is very close to the show, and feelings around it are no doubt running high within the cast and creative team, especially as here when they lost one of their cast of four late in the day, with Gerard Carey stepping into the lead role of Jack after Gabriel Vick suffered a broken foot. It’s an established theatre tradition to wish actors luck by saying ‘Break a leg’, but in this case Vick’s luck may have been even greater by breaking a foot, since he could avoid being in it.
Once again, EX demonstrated for me the yawning chasm between ambition and achievement in lots of young British musicals. The problems are apparent even before you get into the theatre, since it’s not even sure what it is: on the publicity leaflet, it’s described as a “new British musical”; on the billing page of the programme, as “a play with songs”.
But those are the least of the difficulties of a show whose tone in matters of the heart as well as art is fatally misjudged. A few pleasant songs along the way do not a musical make. By comparison, I had a far better time at Burlesque, another new musical that at least has the dignity of a properly told story, not a collection of random romantic vignettes; and if it bites off rather more than it can chew, in terms of the number of stories it asks us to follow and takes its time to establish which of those is the main one, at least there’s plenty to chew on.
Adam Meggido is best known for his improvisational Showstopper! musicals — of which he says in a programme note, “To date I have improvised almost 300 musicals”, and says about writing the music for this one and co-writing its book and lyrics with Roy Smiles, “It was time to write one down.”
As also directed by Meggido, with a first-rate West End ready cast of principals that include veterans Linal Half and Buster Skeggs and younger leads Chris Holland and Jon-Paul Hevey, there’s commitment and craft on offer. I would love to see it again; and I will also follow its future progress with interest.