Book, Music and Lyrics: Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins
Director: Ian Talbort
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Every superhero has an alter-ego, overlooked, geeky and far too human, someone who must hide their true self under capes and luminous tights. Yet we love the dichotomy that superheroes represent, how one individual can have two different sides – the ordinary versus the extraordinary, mildness against strength, repression pulling against freedom. Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins have tapped in to this fascination with new musical Eugenius, returning to The Other Palace by popular demand.
High school geek Eugene spends his free time creating comic adventures for Tough Man and Super Hot Lady, the superheroes he has created. Secretly loved by friend Janey, she encourages Eugene to enter a Hollywood competition where soon his creations are taking shape on the big screen. But reality and fiction start to blur as Evil Lord Hector escapes the stories and arrives to kill Tough Man, if only he can find out who he is.
Already generating its own cult fanbase following a premiere concert and a full-stage-run in the Spring, there are few people in the room who don’t know and already love Eugenius, clapping along and heartily cheering their favourite exuberant characters. By the end of Adams and Watkins’ show, even the newbies in the auditorium will have fallen in love with this 80s-style fantasy sci-fi feel-good hit that never takes itself too seriously.
The 17 original songs and two reprises are gloriously 80s, full of synthesised keyboards, sax solos and thrumming electric guitars, across a variety of rock anthems, power ballads and the odd rap that spin from the sweet to the silly in an instant. The title song is an air-punching anthem to self-empowerment while big set pieces such as the Act One finale Hollywood pay tribute to the movie titans of 70s and 80s sci-fi, adventure and fantasy George Lucas, Indiana Jones and plenty more.
Eugenius is full of larger-than-life characters, daft scenarios and jokey references that anyone born after 1990 might not understand, but Adams and Watkins’ show has an essential innocence, a charm that makes you love it even when its humour occasionally feels a little forced or overstretched. The central love story between Eugene and Janey is charming, while the surrounding cast of movie moguls, talentless actors and high school bullies is full of colour and peppered with endless pop culture references of the era.
Of course, everyone’s rooting for the good guys but its really the baddies we love, and Eugenius has one of the best scene-stealing villains in a long time. Everything about Neil McDermott’s performance as Evil Lord Hector is a pure joy and you start to wish he was in every scene. Played as a big baby in an adult romper suit sucking on a bottle, Hector is a sulky, whiny voiced loner out for revenge. McDermott is hilarious, not so much chewing the scenery as devouring chunks of it at a time, but every over-extended facial expression, gesture and movement helps the audience adore the performance as much as the actor does. Evil Lord Hector spin-off musical anyone?
Rob Houchen shows hero Eugene visible growing in confidence and stature as the show unfolds, while Laura Baldwin’s smart and determined Janey is a tough twenty-first-century heroine making her own dreams come true. There’s good support from Daniel Buckley as luckless best friend Feris, and Simon Thomas and Emily Tierney are hilarious as the C-list actors cast as Tough Man and Super Hot Lady, with Tierney, in particular, creating a doll-like character with little self-awareness.
If Eugenius has one fault it’s that the final confrontation between the true Tough Man and Evil Lord Hector is too short and you’re desperate to see them fight it out for a bit longer. Nonetheless, it’s a show that designed just to make you feel happy, and you’ll leave the auditorium with a smile on your face and a solid message to take home – superheroes may be strong and glamourous, but it’s their real self, the alter-ego, that ends up getting the girl!
Runs until 7 October 2018 | Image: Scott Rylander