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Fabulous Creatures at Arcola Theatre | Review

The smash success of Six proves there is box office appeal in staging an energetic, fourth-wall-breaking musical that gives greater humanity to the lives of women who have been vilified, underestimated, or erased. With Fabulous Creatures, Quentin Beroud and Emily Louizou seem to be biting off a bigger, and potentially more niche, challenge. More than humanising the real wives of Henry VIII with girl group song-and-dance numbers tied to a gotcha premise that women should collaborate rather than compete, Beroud and Louizou’s work sets about deconstructing 2000 odd years of Western mythology and its resulting archetypes — starting with a look at some characters that have perpetuated narrow tropes of femininity for millennia. Most of their aim is reserved for Homer’s epic poems: The Iliad and Odyssey, treating us to a takedown of some key plot points that are surely absurd to the modern sensibility.

Jazz Jenkins, Hannah van der Westhuysen and Kate Newman in Fabulous Creatures (photographer Sophie Giddens).
Jazz Jenkins, Hannah van der Westhuysen and Kate Newman in Fabulous Creatures (photographer Sophie Giddens).

It’s the same kind of argument that Nikki Marmery makes in her novel Lilith about the depiction of Eve: isn’t this characterisation just a tad too convenient in its service of a patriarchal agenda? However, in its commitment to challenge prevailing conceptions — through amusing and entertaining cabaret songs and theatrical business — Fabulous Creatures can find itself troubled by a different kind of convenience. Adopting a contrarian view – that is effectively an argument with little subtlety – results in a show that drifts into po-faced polemic and loses sight of whether it wants to be a musical essay-cum-pisstake or would prefer, ambitiously, to offer a different dramatic perspective on some of the most enduring stories of the western canon. The latter is without question harder – but not impossible as evidenced by Marina Carr’s brilliant Girl on an Altar – and offers a meatier theatrical experience. The former, which is mostly where this production lives – drifts into a kind of joylessness at odds with the formidable entertainment skills of its cast of singers, dancers and comedians.

I can see this production as an absolute sweet spot for sixth-form classicists chaffing at any kind of unqualified hero worship. Indeed, not being particularly au fait with the source material may not matter if you find comfort or thrill in pricking the pomposity of the dead Greek men (certainly something that appealed to my undergraduate framing back in the day.) But the appeal is narrower than Six (which just requires an interest in music and a more thoughtful urge about the telling of history). This production’s cabaret quality makes the story a little too adult for high schoolers and the nature of its – “let’s get the gang back together for one last heist” – plotting along with its somewhat simplistic derision of modern history’s interpretation of key Greek myths, makes it a little too flimsy for experts. The shoehorning in of Clytemnestra is odd. Like an audition piece comprised of a stunning monologue for a one-woman show, Kate Newman displays top acting skills, but for the script to jump outside of Homer and pick one of many examples from the canon of Greek tragedy as a finale feels oddly tacked on. There is just a bit too much, ‘and another thing’ as fingers are pointed and injustices enumerated. The impulse is welcome but the rendition is on-the-nose – or not on-the-nose enough to be hilariously self-aware.

Nonetheless, as a showcase for skilled performance, Fabulous Creatures is indeed fabulous. Jazz Jenkins (as Siren) has a knock-out voice and Hannah van der Westhuysen is winning and multi-talented as emceeing Charybdis. The quality of the singing and the heft of the songs is a cut above what you might expect.

As an early iteration of something potentially very special, Fabulous Creatures is promising. But it needs to rework some of its clunkier plotting to show rather than tell – especially seeing as it has successful musical numbers that can go straight there without so much surrounding editorialising and exposition.

Visually and aurally pleasing, this show has much to recommend it – and doesn’t need to lose its rage, but perhaps needs to trust its audience to draw its own conclusions without trying so hard to be the “cool teacher”.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Cast:
Hannah van der Westhuysen is Charybdis aka “Whirlpool”, hostess of the grotesque
Kate Newman is SCYLLA, a rock star with outrageous costumes
Jazz Jenkins is Siren, the woman-bird with the notorious voice

Creatives:
Written by Quentin Beroud & Emily Louizou
Directed by Emily Louizou
Movement & Choreography by Ioli Filippakopoulou
Music Composition & Sound Design by Irene Skylakaki
Set & Costume Design by Ismini Papaioannou
Lighting Design by David Doyle
Executive Producer: Elizabeth Filippouli

Welcome to the Monstrous Cabaret Club, a place to drown more than your sorrows, where the acts are unreal and the voices to die for!

Whether you’re strapping in for the Sirens or caught between Scylla and Charybdis, you’re in for a night you’ll never forget!

Once the pre-eminent killers of the mythical age, the Sirens have long given up their licence to kill. Now they run a private club hidden somewhere between Mount Olympus and the Underworld. But the glamorous routine of their cabaret life is about to be shattered when a desperate and determined woman asks for help in taking down her abusive husband before he returns from a 10-year war. These fabulous creatures are now faced with a deadly dilemma: sacrifice the safety of the shadows or come out into the light and help a stranger in her hour of need?

FABULOUS CREATURES
Produced by Collide Theatre in partnership with Elizabeth Filippouli and in association with the Arcola Theatre
22 May to 15 June 2024

Author

  • Mary Beer

    Mary graduated with a cum laude degree in Theatre from Columbia University’s Barnard College in New York City. In addition to directing and stage managing several productions off-Broadway, Mary was awarded the Helen Prince Memorial Prize in Dramatic Composition for her play Subway Fare whilst in New York. Relocating to London, Mary has worked in the creative sector, mostly in television broadcast and production, since 1998. Her creative and strategic abilities in TV promotion, marketing and design have been recognised with over 20 industry awards including several Global Promax Golds. She is a founder member of multiple creative industry and arts organisations and has frequently served as an advisor to the Edinburgh International TV Festival.

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