A schizophrenic tribute to Dan Leno, the Crown Prince of the Music Hall, Jonathan Kydd’s rambling musical falls between two stools, and falls hard. Part ‘oops! have a banana’ pastiche and part gender-bending Gothic horror, it passes up a fascinating true story for a queasy dose of psychotronic schlock treatment. Bursting with 18 original songs, only a few of which hit the mark, it’s a pun-heavy, laugh-light string of single entendres and squiffy sexual politics.
Things start well with the pitch-perfect ‘An Evening at the Music Hall’, highlighting the many skilled performers within the company as well as the excellent musicians. The opening number establishes the ingenious structure, in which the gavel-wielding Chairman (Richard Albrecht) introduces each scene like a Music Hall turn. Like Rocky Horror’s starched narrator, he is intended to provide outraged commentary to the debauchery of the tale. Chris Vincent’s initial appearance as Dan Leno is also promising; he has mastered the gormless but winning grin, and his initial breakdown mid-performance is chilling and effective. It’s when Leno is carted of to Camberwell Asylum and Kydd allows his imagination to run away with him that the wheels begin to wobble.
From then on in we’re trapped in a conventional comedy asylum, with Richard Foster-King gamely embodying a string of cardboard lunatics, and Philip Herbert finding a touch of gentle humour in lobotomised orderly Dawlish. The asylum is subjugated by horse-obsessed tyrant Miss Cornthwaite (Alwyne Taylor), and the hoary set is completed by fresh-faced Amelia Proudfoot (Sarah Earnshaw) who wants a kinder, gentler form of treatment than the hot and cold baths and cranial spiking approved by turn of the century quacks. There’s intrigue, romance and dozens of intrusive flashbacks exploring the psychological skeletons in Leno’s closet.
The ingredients are in place for a classic B-movie romp, but instead there’s a recurrent emphasis on gender politics and psychosexual development. At times it feels like a musical Kinsey Report directed by Ed Wood, but unfortunately many of the issues are tossed around and trumped up so casually that it feels uncomfortable rather than daring or insightful. The initial portrait of Cornthwaite as a decidedly grimy predatory lesbian determined to lure the young Amelia into her ‘Rose Garden’ feels cheap and dated, and there are a handful of darker elements that are completely mishandled. Rape as trigger for sexual self-discovery? It’s the sort of twist that puts you off clapping along.
The songs are a strange assembly; some, such as ‘Clarinetting Kisser’ and ‘Pineapple’, are spoof Music Hall standards, while others take their cues from more recent Broadway fayre. ‘Phineas Gage’ is more Oklahoma! than Sheffield Empire, ‘The Bermondsey Butcher’ tips a wink to Sondheim’s Todd and ‘Two Baths’ half-inches the chorus of Razzie-winning ‘Marry the Mole’ from Thumbelina.
If it’s never clear how seriously we should take the production, this is partly the fault of a reticence on the part of the whole cast. At times the performances have the tenor of a man caught speaking too loudly in a quiet room; played at full-tilt the production would be much easier to laugh along with, here there are more than a few embarrassed pauses. A song such as ‘Amelia’ is bursting with ‘so bad they’re bloody amazing’ lyrics (‘Amelia, if I was a seal I would perform for ya!’) and played with a surer hand non-sequiters such as ‘You bend over to tie your shoelaces and somebody steals your cat!’ could bring the house down. Instead they fall flat, and the production stumbles.
This is The Hard Boiled Egg & the Wasp’s world premiere, and there’s plenty of time and plenty of room for improvement. It’s a fascinating topic and there are glimpses of something far better visible on more than one occasion, but for the moment its cult appeal is limited by its dramatic incoherence.
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