Reviewer: Mark Clegg
Producing some of the most recognisable and catchy songs of the 20th Century, Robert B. and Richard M. Sherman will forever remain legends, particularly for their work for Disney writing tunes for (among many others) Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. Following in his father and uncle’s footsteps, Robert J. Sherman has emerged as a writer of musicals over the past few years and just like his predecessors Robert J. seems to favour more family oriented subject matters and traditional musical genres: his Love Birds that debuted at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe centres around a troupe of Vaudevillian birds and monsters. Similarly, this new musical follows this tradition albeit with a surprising subject matter: the Great Plague of London as seen through the eyes of the plague-carrying rats. Other musicals have been based on equally bizarre concepts and Sherman should be applauded for his bravery, if perhaps not his song-writing talents…
Such a dark subject suggests a rodent Les Miserables and there are vague hints of such parallels on this CD – a recording of a concert version of the show performed to commemorate the 350th anniversary of The Great Fire of London. Melbourne Bumblescratch (Darren Day at his most charming and cheeky, leading a very good cast), a slightly demented plague rat spends half his time stealing from his fellow rats and the other half avoiding those he has wronged. After inadvertently incurring the wrath of the King of the Pack Rats, Bumblescratch’s escape is slowed by his encounter with a young orphan rat who latches on to the free-spirited thief. The rest of the plot is convoluted and by turns both comic and tragic, a balance that the score sadly struggles to support.
It should first be said that Sherman is not a bad songwriter. His lyrics are often witty and intricate, although he seems more at home with light comedy than with sincere emotion. Similarly, his tunes are pleasant and mostly bouncy but (and here is the biggest issue with this CD) never completely satisfying. Frustratingly there are more than a few good songs here but none of them step-up to being great. The score is seriously devoid of a standout number even though there are several that are clearly written to be just that. Jiggery Pokery, Plague Rat! and Dance! Dance! Dance! should all be showstoppers but stop short of such acclaim. At Least a Rat ‘As Got an Excuse is the best of these type of numbers but falls flat by not developing into the big production number it almost seems to yearn to be. Sherman seems to be content to never progress past jaunty toe-tappers when his score could easily tip into a full-belt musical comedy. The same accusations can be made towards his ballads which also remain firmly in the middle of the road.
Although it is nice that Sherman is continuing in the family business, he proves here to have a long way to go to be in the same league as the older generation. However Bumblescratch shows promise, and perhaps working with a suitable collaborator on future projects might provide the ‘oomph’ that is sadly lacking here.