First things first: it is necessary to dispense with the usual star rating on this occasion. The musical that won the 2013 S&S Award is still in development, so it can only follow that this year’s finalists may well not be presenting the Gala Night with a finished product. In fact, they are only showcasing a sample of their work, with narrative summarised by host Nigel Harman (who seems to look younger and younger over the years) in order that this select audience is not hearing selected songs completely out of context.
Forest Boy, the aforementioned previous winner, has at its heart an instantly good idea for a musical to be based around. It’s the ultimate escapism into another world that here comes in the form of a runaway who spoke in broken English and submitted himself to authorities in Germany. In these days of Interpol and the World Wide Web his elaborate labyrinth of untruths was never going to remain unsolved forever. But with the real-life details sketchy (as opposed to, say, the source material for Evita or Sunny Afternoon), there is plenty of creative leeway.
There is a good variation in melody over the course of this revised work (that is, what was showcased in 2013 is something other than what was witnessed here at the 2015 Gala). There is nothing worse than a musical in which all the songs sound more or less the same, and I am pleased to report that none of the four shows that formed the evening’s proceedings were bland or unenticing.
However, it was over-reliant on monologues to drive the story forward, and I would have liked to have seen more narrative through song. An unusually long spoken preamble left me wondering if we were watching a musical at all, as opposed to a straight play. The songs, when they do come – I can’t resist comparing them to buses in this instance – are enjoyable. One tune, a response to a developing story on social media, is both hilarious and uncomfortably close to what a Twitter reaction would actually be.
Harry Jardine is convincing enough in the lead role, but musically this is largely an ensemble piece, and a charming and heartfelt one at that. The show is arguably too forgiving of someone who wasted finite police and social services resources, but Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie’s musical follows musical theatre convention well enough. It would, had we seen the show in its entirety and nothing else, sent its audience out on to the streets of central London with a smile on their faces and a spring in their step.
The 2015 finalists were showcased in chronological order, in terms of when the productions were set. Here, which had its co-composer Kate Marlais replace an indisposed Katy Secombe, considers an extremely broad set of themes in early 1940s Cumbria. Any show that takes a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, and successfully builds a soaring melody from it, here ably performed by Greg Castiglioni, is a highly sophisticated one. Marlais and Alex Young have composed a story with depth and maturity, and their musical is a worthy winner of the 2015 S&S Award.
Based on what the audience saw at the Gala (bearing in mind the judging panel will have seen the works in their entirety) I would have plumped for After Lydia. The story is simpler than Here, though the music is far more prevalent, sometimes overlapping spoken dialogue. I was engrossed in the emotional journey of Rebecca Caine’s Lydia, coming to terms with an incurable illness and an equally incurable (for which read ‘unchangeable’) husband in Matthew Rixon’s Sebastian. Both poignant and amusing, I’ve not come across such a radical musical since off-Broadway’s 2008 Next To Normal.
Brett Sullivan’s The Last Word is described by the lyricist and composer as “a slightly mental musical”; I would go further and say it is utterly bizarre. There’s a difference between laughing at a show because it is genuinely amusing, and laughing at it because its narrative is absurd. Still, it was a lot of fun, and musically was noticeably more upbeat and celebratory than its co-finalists. But if Scrabble is to be a significant part of the show, then I would have preferred more actual Scrabble in the lyrics (perhaps the full version does focus in on this). You only have to look at The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee to see how something interesting to participate in but (ordinarily) utterly tedious to watch can be transformed into a hugely entertaining production. This is one of those musicals that would, if it took off, be panned by critics but probably would find an audience nonetheless. It’s imaginative, if it’s anything, and never lazy in its resolutions to problems faced by its characters.
A varied and somewhat exhausting evening (one musical can sometimes leave me breathless, but four…), I admit to having required (‘required’ being very much the operative word) more stiff drinks than usual, which the aftershow party duly provided. What fascinated and pleased me most in my observations of the crowd were congratulations extended to all the finalists – by the finalists themselves. It’s a well-worn cliché, but they are indeed all winners. I’m sure I’m not the only one who came away thinking that with initiatives of this nature from the likes of Mercury Musical Developments, the future state of British musical theatre is not nearly as unsettled and precarious as certain commentators and analysts would have us believe.
By Chris Omaweng
The shorlisted entries for 2015:
A Knight At The Museum – Marc Folan
After Lydia – Christine Denniston and Gwyneth Herbert
Callum – Neil Brand
Here – Alex Young and Kate Marlais
Mars Rover – German Munoz, Jennifer Cook and Tamsin Collison
The Last Day of Summer – Chris Burgess
The Last Word – Brett Sullivan
The Stationmaster – Tim Connor and Susannah Pearse
They Came Back – Martin Ward
Walking The Dogs – Jack Robinson and Julie Clare