Dependent on who the soloist was at a given point, the unamplified vocals in Desperate Measures sometimes struggle to be fully heard over the musicians – who, I hasten to add, played as skilfully and sensitively as could be expected. The company of thirteen members, all on stage whenever an ensemble number called for it, made the studio space that is the Jermyn Street Theatre seem very busy and cluttered.
If I hadn’t known any better, I would have thought the two halves were separate shows in a double bill. There were some very long passages of spoken dialogue in between numbers in Act One, which I felt was more play than musical. Even the songs that did appear largely failed to engage. ‘Chip Paper Promised Land’ (your guess is as good as mine!) had three strong personalities sharing, with only very minor differences, the same back story, which I thought lazy and implausible.
‘Enough Is Enough’ was frankly a sentiment I rapidly began to share. ‘Creative Politics’ was far too preachy, with its enthusiastic and energetic dance routine insufficient to mitigate its patronising tone. Only ‘When The Cold Wind Blows’ provided a step change from the otherwise tepid pace and plot development. (Hurrah! An emotive song!)
It was abundantly clear that this show conveys deep feelings far better than it does satire. A worryingly large number of punchlines were met with silence from this cultured audience. Even the lighting occasionally leaves much to be desired. In one busy scene, there are characters that froze, in order for the action to transfer to another conversation in another part of the stage. Nothing unusual in that, except that none of the stage lights went down. I found this distracting – and more amusing than the supposedly funny dialogue itself. I found myself almost constantly glancing back over to see if these actors were seriously going to stay absolutely still until such time as they had more lines to speak. They did, of course.
A couple of the silences were too long and awkward. Simon Di Angelo MP (Charlie Merriman) was very much the politician, using weasel words, answering questions in a very wordy manner. So wordy that, bored and frustrated, I started nodding off.
I labour these points with such detail, because I might have been tempted to leave at the interval, but for the fact that had I done so, I would have nothing to say about Act Two. And what a difference an interval (and a glass of wine) makes. It was a (too) long wait for the soaring melodies and passionate singing that a good musical ought to have. Ellie Nunn as Isobel Feather (Nunn by name, nun by character) demonstrates a maturity beyond her years, and James Wilson as journalist Charlie Lucre manages to stamp authority on a role that is neither hack-lacking-morality nor self-congratulatory.
Criticism that Measure for Measure is unkind to women is resolved, to a large extent, here – Escalus (Angharad George-Carey) is properly styled ‘Lady Josie Escalus’. Feminists will, however, still have much to comment on, and even I have to admit that Charlie Lucre’s insistence that Isobel should have an earpiece for a live studio appearance smacks of a man not trusting that a woman is capable of handling media relations unassisted.
Resetting Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in 1960s London, as this show does, means there’s something akin to Jimmy Savile propositioning a young lady when Di Angelo comes on to Isobel – the ‘Angelo’ name could not be less inconspicuous to those familiar with Measure for Measure. The proposition leads to a few minutes of narrative before the interval that are very challenging to watch.
This show sufficiently steers clear, despite having a novice nun as lead protagonist, from being similar to Sister Act or The Sound of Music (though it couldn’t quite resist a reference to “a thousand years”). All in all, however, this determined effort to make light of religion and politics is only moderately successful. But at least the Act Two finale is suitably upbeat, faithful to both Act V in Measure for Measure and the end-on-a-high convention of musical theatre. If only the rest of Desperate Measures was as captivating as its finish.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Book and lyrics by Robin Kingsland
Music and lyrics by Chris Barton
Directed by Chris Barton
Designed by Dee Shulman
Musical Direction Jordan Li-Smith
Lighting Designer Alex Sutton
A brand new musical based on Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure.
1960s London – the world of Profumo, Christine Keeler and the Kray Twins. Pop singer Milo is condemned to hang under severe new morality laws. His sister Isobel sets out to rescue him.
But she’s a nun, and the stakes will threaten all that she lives for…
Banter Productions return to Jermyn Street Theatre after their critical and box office hit, A Level Playing Field by Jonathan Lewis, which is nominated for Best Ensemble in the upcoming Offie Awards.
Harry Al-Adwani, Ed Boylan, Sam Elwin, Angharad George-Carey, Emily-Rose Hurdiss, Alice Jay, Jojo Macari, Callum Macdonald, Charlie Merriman, Ellie Nunn, Timothy Patten, Tosin Thompson, James Wilson
Theatre: Jermyn Street Theatre, 16b Jermyn Street, SE1Y 6ST
Dates: 24 November to 20 December 2015
Age recommendation 12+
Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm
Saturday and Sunday matinees 3.30pm