Writer: Kenneth Emson
Director: Ivan Cutting
Musical Director: Robert Hazle
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
On paper Parkway Dreams, a musical about town planning may sound like a spoof. A song and dance show singing the praises of the new town movement and the charms of Welwyn Garden City, Milton Keynes or,in this case,Peterborough? In the hands of Eastern Angles, though, this unlikeliest of musical subjects is turned into not only a powerful slice of social history but actually stands strong as a fully formed piece of musical theatre.
Post-war Britain is struggling with a housing shortage. The population boom and war damage requiring radical solutions. For many Londoners, the chance of a new life in new town expansions such as in Peterborough offer hope – even if they can’t find Peterborough on a map.
Seen through the eyes of Peter and his family, this cross-decade journey looks at the initial hopes the new town project offers and the aftermath once those dreams falter.
Kenneth Emson’s script weaves the actual verbatim testimony of the councillors, planners and residents of this pivotal period in Peterborough’s development within a framework that allows us to place the development within wider historical context. Popular TV shows such as Crackerjack, Dixon of Dock Green and Blankety Blank all used as devices to allow political comment and historical anchors. It’s a script that would work adequately as a play but what lifts it is the inclusion of Simon Egerton’s witty score. Egerton’s musical numbers provide plenty of comic relief but also allow us an insight into the mood, not just of individuals but of a whole community.
There’s a wonderful spoof of Abba, a number comparing Peterborough’s design to a banana and there can’t be any other stage musical with a showstopping number extolling the virtues of Peterborough’s Queensgate shopping centre – bigger and better than Brent Cross apparently.
Ivan Cutting’s direction keeps the action moving at a suitably swift pace, utilising Charlie Cridlan’s oversized technical drawing set to great effect. Michael Cross’ choreography adds another layer of engery, drawing out some spectacular set pieces from the six-strong cast.
It’s a cast clearly enjoying itswork, each playing a proliferation of the townsfolk and politicians. There’s particualry strong work from Robert Jackson as (among others) our narrator Peter, Polly Nayler and Matt Ray Brown as his parents, Rosalind Steele’s hilarious take on the unlikely songbird and marketing icon Catherine of Aragon and Gareth Wildig as the driving force behind the Peterborough Development Corporation.
Robert Hazle’s musical direction is sharp and tight, the cast moving in and out of musical accompaniment as needed.
There are moment when some of the Peterborough specific reference do lose those not overly familiar with the town; however, there’s enough commonality and universal themes that, even without knowing the specific locations reference, one can identify with the emotional drive.
The post war dream for town planning may have been flawed. The dreams of the early pioneers of an idyllic community where work and leisure can be perfectly combined lost in a sea of concrete and bureaucratic interference.
Many of the landmarks built during this intense period of change and expansion are now being demolished as ‘ugly’ monstrosities, but in a week where the National Trust highlights the importance of preserving our post-war buildings, it is perhaps an appropriate time for Eastern Angles to revive and tour this important piece of oral history.
The plans, minutes and news coverage of the period give a flavour of the changes underway but in Parkway Dreams Eastern Angles have captured something much more valuable – the hopes and dreams of the community involved. It may be an unusual subject for a stage musical but it’s one that delivers it message in an accessible and highly entertaining manner.
Touring until 26 October 2015 | Image: Mike Kwasniak