Book: Phil Wilmott, adapted from the novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Music and Lyrics: Toyah Willcox and Simon Darlow
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
As the scenario for a jukebox musical based on the music of a British New Wave artist of the late 1970s, one doesn’t immediately think one of the classics of Russian literature, much less consider that a steampunk design aesthetic would fit either. And yet, despite much clunkiness throughout, somehow all three elements do occasionally mash together well enough to veer towards enjoyability.
Alec Porter cuts an initially fine figure as Raskolnikov, an impoverished student who, like all his comrades in St Petersburg, is in hock to Alyona Ivanovna, the local pawnbroker. Raskolnikov is prone to long pronouncements on philosophical arguments, most notably that some people have the moral right to commit crimes such as murder. When he sees the destitution that being in debt to Ivanovna has forced upon one family of his beloved Sonya (Rachel Delooze), Raskolnikov sees the opportunity to put his theory into practice.
His consequent murder of Ivanovna and her sister Lizaveta provokes both an investigation from police inspector Petrovitch – played by writer/director Phil Willmott as an intellectual cross between Javert and Columbo – and a gradual descent into madness on Raskolnikov’s behalf. Unfortunately, the sight of spectres roaming around the stage with hats made out of red string to signify the Ivanovna sisters’ head wounds is rather more hilarious than seems to be intended.
The plundering of Toyah Willcox’s back catalogue of songs also provides some juxtapositions that can’t help but raise a smile, most notably Willmott’s delivery of It’s a Mysteryas he begins his investigation into the murder. Throughout, the use of Willcox’s music – most of which is by Willcox and Darlow, with additional contributions from Joel Bogen and Keith Hale – provides a pleasingly uniform and rich rock sound. The main problem is one that too many narrative jukebox musicals based on pop catalogues face – that the lyrics are repetitive in ways that may work in the Top 40, but on stage murder the momentum as effectively as with Raskolnikov’s axe.
And while the choice of songs to fit the action and sentiment of each moment is achieved well, it does mean that the musical numbers crop up when play and lyrics coincide, rather than when narrative imperative dictates. So we end up with a near half hour in the middle of the 100-minute play with no songs, and a dramatic conclusion that has talking where there should be an eleven o’clock number and vice versa.
Now in its 14th year, the season of open air theatre productions in The Scoop amphitheatre remains a commendable display of free theatre. While this amalgam of Russian literature and 1970s punk doesn’t quite work, it’s still commendable that a venture such as this is taking risks with productions such as this, rather than a retread of more familiar crowd-pleasing fare.
Runs until 25 September 2016 | Image: Sheila Burnett