Composer Alexander Bermange dismantles the Cuban Missile Crisis in a time-warped musical that entertains for all the wrong reasons. Though the book is loosely based on Robert Kennedy’s account of the fraught negotiations that saw the world teeter on the precipice of nuclear annihilation, Bermange has swapped out Kennedy’s keen political insights for a camp-as-Christmas jamboree that swings between po-faced posturing and sappy sentimentality.
Kennedy’s book stuck tightly to the pressures his brother faced in the potentially lethal game of chicken played with Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro. That anxious triumvirate are still present in Bermange’s musical, but they’re joined by an underwhelming love triangle as the arrival of a mysterious American upsets the romance between a Russian ‘technical specialist’ and a young Cuban girl. As a human interest story it’s pat and well-worn, and as a tool for the introduction of the kind of wistful love-songs in Bermange’s comfort zone it’s wholly unwelcome. Neither conflict is sufficiently engaging, both are underwritten, and the subsequent lack of building dramatic tension fails to capture the escalating threat of war.
The opening number ‘Into the Light’ provides an effective backdrop to the crisis with the three leaders facing their hopeful people: Kennedy promising a future of peace and prosperity; Khrushchev a readdressing of the global balance of power; and Castro a new security for the fruits of revolution. Steven Sparling’s Kennedy displays some of the weakness and self-doubt his brother identified in his book, and Anthony Cable makes a stately and brooding Khrushchev. Unfortunately, after this promising introduction, the book and lyrics give them little but platitudes to fire at one another and the political machinations of the conflict are reduced to synopsis.
The love story ticks boxes rather than pulling heart-strings, and it fails to shed new light or a fresh perspective on the geopolitical backdrop. Its amor vincit nihil denouement steers it briefly away from humdrum, but leaves the piece feeling dtrangely incomplete. Melissa Moore is the strongest of the three, playing conflicted Cuban student Valentina Valdez with teary-eyed conviction. She also manages to put a brave face on some truly cringe-worthy lyrics. The golden ‘You’ve used me, you’ve been lying/You’re only here for spying’ sent a ripple of titters across the Arcola Tent, and there’s more than one occasion in which the cast look mildly embarrassed by the relentlessly jingling verse they’re performing. Rhyming couplets are scarcely a friend to complex global politics.
Matthew Gould’s direction makes smart use of the thrust staging with grid-like choreography, but the tone of the music leaves more than a whiff of The Producers’ Roger De Bris over proceedings. The score is musical theatre by numbers, and the only attempt to inject the promised Latin influence, ‘Another Day in Havana’, lurches into parody. First premiered earlier this year, you’d be forgiven for presuming Thirteen Days had been unearthed from a time capsule in the Blue Peter garden, left unperformed since Peter Purves buried it among the desiccated tortoises and bones of collies past. It seems a strange fit for Grimeborn’s hip, progressive programming.
Ben Rogers’ video design comes into its own during the interval, with the projection of wittily selected period advertisements, but elsewhere the use of archive photography serves only to highlight the gulf between historical fact and musical frippery and, as a whole, Thirteen Days brings neither insight nor emotional depth to a fascinating fortnight in 20th century politics.