Music and lyrics: Jeff Bowen
Book: Hunter Bell
Director: Will Keith
Musical director: Oliver Rew
Reviewer: David Guest
If it were a serious drama [Title of Show] would be compared to Beckett, Pinter and Stoppard delivering their most absurd and puzzling plays.
As a musical it is more likely to be regarded as a show within a show alongside the likes of Kiss Me Kate but, as the quaint and quirky new production at Waterloo East Theatre proves, this is a piece of depth and skill that deserves its own entry in any history of drama and théâtre de l’absurde.
This isn’t just “a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical.” This is a musical about two guys writing this musical and in itself it is intriguing to see the evolution of the work, the thought processes, the successes, the failures and the inspiration.
It may take time for an audience to get used to the silly but effective idea of “we’re making it up as we go along” (one scene ends with a blackout simply because a character feels it’s been going on too long, for example, while in another a character asks the musical director to play a piece of music to show the passing of time) and there are plenty of gay culture and musical flops references that are more Broadway than West End. But this cast shines with such enthusiasm and good humour that any baffling in-jokes are balanced by strong performances and obvious love of the content.
The original show was written for the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2004, then went off-Broadway and finally onto Broadway, all starring the writers and their two friends as “themselves” plus their musical director/arranger. It came to the UK in 2013, first at the Edinburgh Fringe,then a London production. Such has been the development and tweaking of the show from production to production it would be interesting even now to see some reference to the international journey added by the writers.
[Title of Show] has earned cult status among musical theatre fans, not least thanks to a blog and regular YouTube updates by its creators charting its progress. Looking at some of those videos it’s rewarding to see how close the Waterloo East cast come at times to their real-life counterparts in personality and performance. Yet director Will Keith never allows the production to become too self-referential or reverential and the eagle-eared will spot some very naughty contemporary references too.
Waterloo East is the ideal venue for this production, with its simple set and props consisting of little more than four chairs, laptops, Playbills and a turkey burger. The intimate setting allows for a degree of relationship with the audience, a sense of involvement with the creative process, and a naturalistic and comfortable atmosphere.
Not all the songs are memorable, but that is part of the point of this camp and lovable study of creating a worthy show. For in the midst of poking fun at musical conventions and clichés and in spite of the knowing asides, there are moments when [Title of Show] is profound and thought-provoking. The song near the end that suggests: “I’d rather be nine people’s favourite thing than a hundred people’s ninth favourite thing” is catchy both as a musical number and as a reflection on life and success. The whole is a challenge never to take oneself too seriously.
The enjoyable cast gels superbly together, dramatically and musically. As the writers, Daniel Mack Shand (Jeff) and Louie Westwood (Hunter), put across well the idea of two nobodies with a passion for theatre and American TV giving birth to an idea,then helping it to grow and their infectious likeability helps the audience share their passion.
As their two friends, Chloe Hawkins (Heidi) and Malindi Freeman (Susan) make the most of what the show itself dismisses as secondary characters, supporting the writers in their hopes and dreams yet having at least a foot in reality.
All the performers are vocally strong, with Heidi’s shiver down the spine showstopper A Way Back to Then being just one highlight. Musical director Oliver Rew, who provides the sole accompaniment on keyboard as well as playing Larry, maintains the pace and eases such a strong delivery from the singers that one feels no performer can be far from greater stardom and success.
Jason Rodger and SR Productions may be relatively new kids on the block (this is their second production) but on this evidence, we must hope for more revivals of lesser well-known musicals in both smaller venues and eventually larger theatres. In a way, this post-modern work-in-progress voyage is their own journey and the prospects are pleasing.
Runs until 25 September 2016 |Image: James Beedham