Book, music and lyrics: Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins
Director: Ian Talbot
Reviewer: David Guest
The brassy strapline for Eugenius! asserts that you already want to see the new show again before you’ve even entered the theatre. It’s a bold claim for a homegrown musical about which there has been a buzz since a one-off concert version at the Palladium in 2016, but based on this colourful and immensely enjoyable production at The Other Palace, it’s justifiable.
This throwback to the 80s is a pastiche of comic book heroes, 70s and 80s sci-fi culture, the music and style of the 80s and a lot more besides. Forget the murmurings of PC naysayers: Eugenius! has the potential to be a cult classic in the same groove as The Rocky Horror Show, Return to the Forbidden Planet and Little Shop of Horrors, boasting catchy songs, witty dialogue and sheer silliness, all of which keep a smile etched on your face.
Created lovingly by the frontman of 90s pop group a1, Ben Adams, and Chris Wilkins, Eugenius! is often daft, always hilarious and bursting with a liveliness that must leave its cast exhausted by the interval, let alone by the time the rousing anthemic title song raises the roof and the audience to its feet at the finale. The enthusiasm of all involved is infectious and the triumph of this show that never takes itself too seriously is that there are enough twists and turns to ensure that we are never served with anything too predictable.
From the moment Brian Blessed’s stentorian narration opens the show (and yes, there’s even a “Eugene is alive!” reference for the fans later) it is clear that this is going to be a flying saucerful of fun, packed with nudges and winks for those familiar with the genre, passing nods to the compass of musical theatre, laughs at the expense of a range of 80s icons, all with a lavish sprinkling of the feelgood factor. Even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, gets in on the action by voicing Kevin the Robot, a gloriously tacky creation that makes Dalek sink plungers look positively 25th Century chic.
At its charming heart is a rite of passage story about a bullied schoolboy, Eugene, with few friends and with a passion for the escapism that comic books can provide. His self-illustrated Tough Man and Super-Hot Lady comics win him the chance to make movies in Hollywood – but his fictional imaginings turn out to have more than a grain of truth.
Making his West End and UK debut Liam Forde is strong and dynamic as Eugene, instantly lovable as the geeky hero tempted by fame and saved by love. As with many of the performances, here it is an achievement which should have producers beating a path to his door and his is but one name we need to be watching out for in the future. Laura Baldwin is a sassy Janey, the best friend who is more likely to attract Eugene’s attention by wearing a Fraggle Rock t-shirt than by obvious displays of romance, while Daniel Buckley constantly steals the show as Feris, the sidekick never afraid to step over the line of acceptability or respectability.
Tremendous stuff too from Ian Hughes as Evil Lord Hector, the power-crazed sadistic invader, Shaun Dalton’s hunky Tough Man (contrasted superbly with an all-too-recognisable Hollywood superstar), Cameron Blakely’s hard film producer, Scott Paige’s deliciously camp Theo, and Melissa James as a steamy Carrie.
All the vocal performances are outstanding – there isn’t a weak link in one of the best ensembles currently gathered on a London stage. Potential alien invaders should remember to beware of geeks airing riffs so marvellously. The writers have come up with a show packed with memorable and well-crafted songs which are well-delivered throughout, from the laughably quirky to the soaring power ballads.
Drawing it all together, the dependable Ian Talbot directs with flair and a sense of cheeky enjoyment. Darren Lord directs the small band from the keyboards with boyish vivacity, Hannah Wolfe’s design is vibrant, Aaron Renfree’s choreography is breathlessly imaginative and Andrew Ellis’s lighting and Gareth Owen’s sound designs add a further dimension to the overall period pot pourri.
Credit too to Warwick Davis and the production team for daring to have faith in this small show with big ideas and even greater promise. Eugenius! is a fresh new show that deserves to succeed and grow as a rival to the biggest and best of its more established fellows. In the words of one of its songs it doesn’t just shoot for the stars, it shoots higher and its future is definitely meteoric.
Runs until: 3 March 2018 | Image: Pamela Raith