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Review of Rasputin Rocks at Stockwell Playhouse

Jake Byrom as Rasputin with Robyn Hampton and Jessica Townsley. Photo by Zac Cooke.
Jake Byrom as Rasputin with Robyn Hampton and Jessica Townsley. Photo by Zac Cooke.

The principal prerequisite for a successful musical is to get the sound right: quality, balance, tone and volume. Unfortunately, Rasputin Rocks fails to bring any of these crucial elements under control. Sound Engineer Ays Kura has, I’m afraid, to carry the can for this though both Musical Director Connor Fogel and the Director of the show (who we’ll come to later) must also hold up their hands and take responsibility.

There’s a great little chorus trio of singer/dancers – Robyn Hampton, Charlotte Shaw and Jessica Townsley – who pop up in various guises throughout the show and who belt out the opening number but we immediately see that the sound failings are crucially evident in any ensemble/chorus numbers, in which voices appear to be competing rather than harmonising. And the balance is so poor that we have to endure a cacophonous mishmash of unrelated sounds in which the lyrics if there are any, are entirely indecipherable.

Purely for the visual symmetry of the stage setting the four-piece band is split into two – guitar and drums on one side, bass and keyboard – played by the MD – on the other. It’s quite a wide stage. Why do bands of all different styles, scope and size never do this? Because it doesn’t work. The onstage band needs to be together, next to each other, as a tight-knit group.

Maria Alexe as the Emperor of Russia with Robyn Hampton, Charlotte Shaw and Jessica Townsley as the Kremlin Imperial Guard. Photo by Zac Cooke.
Maria Alexe as the Emperor of Russia with Robyn Hampton, Charlotte Shaw and Jessica Townsley as the Kremlin Imperial Guard. Photo by Zac Cooke.

And the completely overpowering prominence of the drums – drummer Livio Polisano only has two stops on his kit – loud and louder – makes any semblance of balance impossible. The ho-hum derivative score is by Alistair Smith who surely cannot be sitting in the auditorium thinking: this is exactly how I want my music to be delivered.

The set (Jamie Owens) – consists of four tri-lite towers on trucks which are fussily swivelled and adjusted constantly by actors throughout the show to no discernible effect and these are complemented by the worst lighting design (Daniel Spreadborough) I have seen on the London stage this year. The Stockwell Playhouse has a great set of LX toys: use them!

So to the plot: it’s a kind of Kingsman meets the Thick of It. Female Emperor of Russia (I thought that was an Empress but hey, let’s not wake up the gender police) is dying so wants to destroy the world – cue EML (evil manic laughter). There’s a Resistance, of course (there’s always a Resistance) who she’s going to brutally put down – cue MEML (more evil manic laughter). Her secret weapon to help achieve her nightmare is Rasputin. Yes, that Rasputin – mad monk and beardy weirdo – cue LMEML (lots more… you get the picture). Rasputin, wouldn’t you know it, was frozen alive back in the day and now is being melted (is that the term?) a hundred years later. The hard graft of melting falls to a group of hi-vis- jacketed, manual-labouring Poles (no racial stereotyping here, then). And into all this wanders, entirely unaccountably, Tony Blair – cue EMS (evil manic smiling). The Blair sequences, full of intricate Blairist detail, are mildly amusing and vaguely satirical but what the borsch are they doing here? It’s kind of like the writer wanted to do a satire on our erstwhile leader and needed a vehicle to do so and thus the melting of Rasputin seemed a reasonable way to combine EMS with EML. This was all unfathomable to me until I read the programme – after the show as is my wont. The plum role of Tony Blair is played (or pretty much mimed as much of his dialogue is sub-sotto voce) by Andrew Hobbs. The show is written by Andrew Hobbs. The show is directed by … Andrew Hobbs (tell yourself to speak up, Andrew!) So whilst everything points to Rasputin Rocks actually being the Tony Blair show it is, in fact, the Andrew Hobbs show. 

The one really good singer in the troupe is Tanya Truman as rebel Svetlana who makes a good fist of rising above the disjointed band with the overwhelming drums. Jake Byron as Rasputin, complete with awful fright-beard that doesn’t match his stubble, lurches from ranty-snarly to whispery-smarmy with nothing in between: in other words from indecipherable to inaudible. He screech-screams his numbers with a good dollop of EMC (Evil Manic Caterwauling) and seems to think that a bit of mad staring and eye-rolling is all you need to create the character of a mad monk.

The audibility problems are exacerbated by the bewildering variety of cod Russian accents on display. Difficult to sustain, of course, during the two and a half hour length of the show, but when these falter a bit we can at least
make out what they are saying. Chief culprit for indecipherable accent combined with “stage whispers are my thing” is the strange Frank Spenser-esque character, Anton. He delivers his first line from the front row facing the stage.

Apparently, it was funny as the people sitting next to him laughed but goodness knows what he said. At least the cast – and director – could hear him. Anton, despite having to change into bright pink trousers due to some
kind of unspeakable accident – a rather laboured device to get a cheap laugh – inevitably turns into a hero of the resistance rescuing Tony Blair. But we still can’t make out what he’s saying.

At one point Tony Blair blurts out “Enough of this idle prattling”: believe me, bro, I feel your pain. And, Mr Hobbs, on this very day when The Old Vic gave an unreserved apology to the twenty people from our industry who had their lives seriously affected by the inappropriate behaviour of its former artistic director it is unseemly and disrespectful to try and get some bargain-basement humour out of a name-check for Kevin Spacey.

2 gold stars

Review by Peter Yates

Set in the near future, Rasputin Rocks! features an insane Russian emperor who’s been diagnosed with a terminal illness and decides to take the whole world with him in a global nuclear armageddon. He has also discovered that the legendary mad monk Rasputin has never in fact died. After Rasputin’s would be assassins failed to kill him, they instead froze him in a vast underground icy prison, which the Emperor has now located and released him from to aid him in his evil plan. Only hero of the free world Tony Blair and a ragtag group of revolutionaries led by Svetlana who are obsessed with the cheesier aspects of Western culture stand between them and the end of the world.

Rasputin Rocks!
Stockwell Playhouse
208 Wandsworth Road
London SW8 2JU
Tuesday, November 14, 2017 to Sunday, December 10, 2017
http://www.stockwellph.com/

Author

  • Peter Yates

    Peter has a long involvement in the theatrical world as playwright, producer, director and designer. His theatre company Random Cactus has taken many shows to the Edinburgh Fringe, the London Fringe and elsewhere and he has been associated with the Wireless Theatre Company since its inception where his short play Lie Detector can be heard: Wireless Theatre Company.

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