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The SpongeBob Musical at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The late Stephen Hillenburg has more than proven his genius for devising total worlds with exquisitely timed narrative arcs and of balancing observational comedy with endearing, but not moralising, life lessons. Rightly, one of his animated TV creations, SpongeBob Squarepants, has reigned over a mighty fanbase for nearly a quarter of a century – reaching more than 170 different countries. In the same year the second feature film was released, 2015, the beloved quadrilateral porifera also spawned a Broadway musical of critical acclaim and over 300 performances. For fans of the undersea pineapple-dwelling fellow, it’s about time the live musical iteration of the franchise made it to London (at the Southbank until 25 August and then on UK tour until 9 September). However, whilst The SpongeBob Musical offers plenty of fun and will be pleasing to many a fan, Tara Overfield Wilkinson’s production is inconsistent and, in parts, indecisive.

The SpongeBob Musical. Photo by Mark Senior.
The SpongeBob Musical. Photo by Mark Senior.

Featuring a live band and mounted in the dedicated concert auditorium that is the Queen Elizabeth Hall, there should be no excuse for a dodgy auditory experience. However, the overall musical delivery, led by Mark Crossland (who re-arranged it from Tom Kitt’s original score) is patchy. With sound design by Ben Harrison, the levels between dialogue, song-and-dance numbers and video playback were mismatched; inhibiting a sense of either being immersed in the oceanic world of Bikini Bottom or the mad-capped panto-like interaction of a frenetic family show. And this is not the only aspect of the production that lacked harmony.

Is it possible that with so many potential creative directions to go, Wilkinson struggled to embrace the single-minded approach she needed for a consistent tone and on-point pace? Unlike the hyper-real vividness of the character and its animated appearances, Steve Howell’s set and Ben Bull’s lighting seemed to interpret ‘under the sea’ literally and created an ambience that was so dark it verged on lugubrious. Likewise, with the exception of SpongeBob himself (and to some extent Plankton), Mercadé’s costumes conveyed neither the high production values associated with a major West End production nor the inherent wit of the source material itself.

I wonder if rather than standing on the shoulders of giants, this production was crushed under their feet – and then perhaps trampled by a herd of co-producers. Or as my 11-year-old co-critic put it, ‘It just needed to be a lot more SpongeBob-y.’ Serious fans of the franchise, my co-critics pointed out that only Lewis Cornay as SpongeBob attempted the unique character voice. The characters are, after all, literally from a cartoon. I have no idea why anyone would be timid about embracing the obvious when staging a decidedly quirky musical, but – by refusing the gift of broad comic characterisation — alas, that’s exactly what this show did. Irfan Damani as Patrick did not attempt the starfish’s iconic spoken voice, even if he successfully belted more than one musical number. Divina de Campo as Plankton presented an imposing physical presence (which was both winning but a little odd seeing as the character is supposed to be microscopic – Mercadé’s costume design, however, put the actor into thick-wedged boots such that Plankton dwarfs fellow sea creatures).

The programme credits the musical production as ‘conceived by’ 22 individuals. I think here possibly lies the messiness and lack of rigour that reveals itself in mediocre pacing and variable energy. In the show’s plot, the residents of Bikini Bottom struggle with the threat of dictatorship; in the staging of this production, a more authoritarian approach should have been embraced. SpongeBob may be an invertebrate but his musical still needs structure.

Nonetheless, if you love SpongeBob, you love SpongeBob. The opportunity to spend two hours with other fans paying homage and finding extended ways to express your devotion should not be underestimated. By the second act, the show was sounding more tuneful so perhaps one-off technical issues were at play – although for this show to reach its potential it needs to reconsider certain creative choices (or failures to make them). Some of the song-and-dance numbers, including a high-energy tap rendition by Squidward (played by Tom Read Wilson and, for certain performances, Gareth Gates, and choreographed by Fabian Aloise), are winning. An atmospheric black-out/ luminescent number exploring the status of a ‘simple sponge’ is also pleasing. Each of my juvenile co-critics individually offered a ‘good-to-fair’ rating but were also unambiguously glad to have seen it – and nearly a week later, we seem still to be swimming in a reef of all things SpongeBob. You may not come out humming the anthem, but something about this show sticks with you.

3 Star Review

Review by Mary Beer

Plunge into this stunning all-singing, all-dancing, dynamic stage show!

When the citizens of Bikini Bottom discover that a volcano will soon erupt and destroy their humble home, SpongeBob and his friends must come together to save the fate of their undersea world!

The SpongeBob Musical
Queen Elizabeth Hall – Southbank Centre, London
26 Jul 2023 – 27 Aug 2023

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  • 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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