Grindr: The Opera – Above the Stag, London

Book, Music and Lyrics: Erik Ransom 

Director: Andrew Beckett 

Reviewer: Scott Matthewman

The most fundamental and accurate observation that Grindr: The Opera makes comes in its first number. The advent of the mobile smartphone, whose GPS technology allows for distance-based searching, transformed the online dating space – particularly for those who, far from looking for Mr Right, were looking for Mr Right Now.

In Erik Ransom’s sung-through musical, which reaches Above the Stag’s swanky new Vauxhall space by way of off-Broadway, Grindr is more than just a gay dating app: it is an operatic supernatural force (aka performer Christian Lunn in quasi-drag), enticing men young and old online with the promise of sex.

The trouble is, with both the app and the opera, that the technology is by its nature a passive medium: it is the humanity of the connections which makes them interesting, not the technology that assists their initiation. Grindr: The Opera works best when it is putting a small slice of gay humanity under a microscope, which it does far too infrequently for the whole project to be a success.

David Malcolm and Matthew Grove are both highly endearing, in very different ways, as gay men Devon and Tom, who meet through the app. Devon is fresh out of a long-term relationship, and is enticed by the thought of an inconsequential fling to get himself back into the dating habit, while Grove’s Tom is happy to entertain a series of encounters for no-strings-attached sex.

That the couple’s burgeoning relationship becomes the focal point of the play shows both the musical genre’s propensity for a romantic storyline, and the playwright’s inability to decide what he wants. So many songs are devoted to sexual liberty and freedom – yet the security of a monogamous relationship, and the heartbreak that may ensue when one-half of a couple strays, form the basis of Ransom’s best writing.

Not that there is too much of that. For while the libretto is peppered with lines about sexual freedom and casual encounters – and even, as Malcolm’s Devon returns to work in a sexual health clinic, the long-term consequences that may ensue – each number is at least one verse too long, each point reiterated several times too many to be truly enjoyable.

Ransom’s story structure also struggles, forever edging towards an Act I finale, each time pulling out before climax. When the interval finally arrives, it does so at a point where it feels like the story has nowhere else to go, no other reason to carry on. This is unlikely to be intended as a commentary on the success rate of Grindr dates.

Dereck Walker’s Don and William Spencer’s Jack, two other men who hook up through Grindr, initially feel as if their storyline is an inferior second to the principal couple’s. And that feeling remains throughout, although the general unpleasantness of Walker’s character juxtaposes nicely with Spencer’s precocious but vulnerable naïf.

As is the way of these things in the fringe musical sphere, this pair’s stories end up intertwined with the other couple’s, in a way which at least amuses by revelling in its unlikelihood. And that, if anything, is Grindr: The Opera’ssaving grace: director Andrew Beckett elicits great, knowing performances from his cast, ably helped by musical director Aaron Clingham (accompanied by Dominic Veall and Becky Hughes).

As the first musical project in Above the Stag’s new, permanent home, Grindr: the Opera does at least show ambition. But like the app it attempts to satirise as much as it celebrates, the satisfaction is only fleeting.

Runs until 26 August 2018 | Image: PBG Studios

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