LondonMusicalReview

Most Notorious – The Bedford, Balham, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Music and Lyrics: Ollie Clark

Book: Lou Waller

Director: Lu Descourtier

Selling out on every night of its short run, it’s standing room only for the last performance of new musical Most Notorious. Playing as part of the Wandsworth Fringe, Ollie Clark and Lou Waller’s retelling of the story of an infamous pair of female pirates is certainly ambitious. With a cast of seven, it also boasts an orchestra of 11. Add to this the Bedford’s impressive space, of which the company use every inch and Most Notorious is a sparkling production, although a show still in its early days.

The untold story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read has, in fact, been told a few times in recent years. This March we had a cabaret restyling of the female privateers in Pansexual Pregnant Piracy at Soho Theatre while in lockdown the audiodrama The Ballad of Anne and Mary by Lindsay Sharman and Laurence Owen retold the same tale to music.

The relationship between Bonny and Read is often rendered as queer, but here in Most Notorious, the partnership between the two women is more ambiguous with the queerness instead firmly assigned to male sailor, Frankie, who finds the Royal Navy much different from what he’d imagined.

The musical starts with, perhaps, its best song, Farewell to the River, as Anne remembers her Irish roots, long after her adventures at sea. Her fellow revellers persuade Anne to tell her story. It’s a nice beginning, possibly referencing other seafaring stories-within-stories like The Heart of Darkness and the song evokes feelings of lost days and scattered memories.

However, after this, most songs are firmly based on the musical theatre tradition, opening slowly before they urgently propel towards resolution. While most are well-composed numbers, like Fight Like a Girl, there are a few too many of this type, drawing us far from the 18th Century. This is one time a few sea shanties wouldn’t go amiss.

They are all sung beautifully, especially by the two leads. Florence Russell as Anne and Waller as Mary have a cheeky chemistry and their duets are finely crafted. Every one of their songs seems to have a climax and Russell’s voice is pure and sounds lovely in the Bedford’s circular auditorium.

Much of the musical’s comedy comes from Frankie, played confidently by Vivek Sharma, who knows just when to open his fan with a flourish. Luke McCulloch also gives a humorous performance as the Governor, the man in charge of arresting the pirates after they plunder, mistakenly, a Royal Naval vessel. There’s something of Hamilton in his songs while other directorial choices such as gender-blind casting and a smutty irreverence seem to have been influenced by Operation Mincemeat.

At the moment, the first half is way too long, running at around 105 minutes. The story spends too much time on Anne’s marriage and then on her elopement with pirate captain Jack Rackham (Greg Arundell). It takes an age for her to finally meet Mary, dressed as a man, captured from the Royal Naval ship. So much time is devoted to Anne’s early years, her escape from prison is rushed over whereas giving more time to the scene might provide some tension amidst the knowing drama.

But despite the issues with pacing, it’s incredible to see such a polished new musical in a Fringe setting. Undoubtedly, we will see this musical grow in the next few years, refining a unique identity as it does. This nautical tale certainly has (sea) legs.

Reviewed on 12 June 2024

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Has sea legs

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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