Desperate Measures – Jermyn Street Theatre, London

Book and lyrics: Robin Kingsland
Music and lyrics: Chris Barton
Director: Chris Barton
Reviewer: Stephen Bates


The saying goes that anyone who remembers the Swinging Sixties could not have actually been there. It is a fair bet that most if not all of the youthful cast and creatives involved in this throwback to the era of Profumo, Keeler and the Krays missed being there by several decades.

The show is a musical adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, in which the Duke Vincentio passes the reins of power over a licentious Vienna temporarily to Angelo, whose errant rule leads to an injustice that the novice nun Isabella is left to fight.

The Bard’s message that power cannot be exercised without wisdom carries through to Robin Kingsland and Chris Barton’s re-working, which sticks to the core plot of the original fairly closely.

“Oh What Times We Live In” chants the chorus as an array of peers, politicians, churchmen, prostitutes and gangsters parade before us. It is London circa 1963 and Prime Minister Dukes (Sam Elwin) takes a hiatus, handing over to moral crusader Simon Di Angelo (someone must have been there in the 60s to come up with the joke in that name). Pop star Milo Feather (Jojo Macari) falls foul of new puritanical laws by fathering a child outside wedlock and faces the gallows unless his sister Isabel can save him.

Some would argue that even Shakespeare found difficulties in juggling the comedy and drama in his “problem” play. Kingsland and Barton face the additional challenges of tying the story to a specific time in recent history and turning it into it a musical. They struggle to make all the elements connect together and it takes some time for the show to get into its stride, but the first half ends on a high with the powerful duet, A Single Night.

There are some long gaps between songs when it feels as if we are watching a modern language version of Shakespeare’s play and, ironically, it is these scenes that are performed with the greatest confidence. Many of the songs, played with the accompaniment of a three-piece band, lack distinctiveness and opportunities to replicate the musical styles of the 1960s are, sadly, missed.

Overall, the level of the performances is inconsistent, but the three principals are a delight. James Wilson is both cynical and compassionate as the tabloid journalist Charlie Lucre and Charlie Merriman tears into the rôle of the hypocritical zealot Di Angelo. As Isabel, Ellie Nunn has a captivating stage presence and a sweet singing voice, perhaps signalling the emergence of another formidable theatrical dynasty.

There can be no denying that this production is rough around the edges – writing, acting and singing all need more work particularly in a stuttering first half, and even the curtain call is a mess. However, notwithstanding all of that, much of the show is highly entertaining and enough promising young talent comes shining through to make it well worth a look.

Runs until 20 December 2015 | Image: Dee Shulman


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