Reviewer: Jay Nuttall
How hard can it be to write a musical? Well, in the hands of The Showstoppers, it seems the answer is not very. In fact, why not just do it there and then … on the spot … in front of an audience! It seems to defy belief yet this is what this company has been doing for the past eight years and what they produce has to be seen to be believed.
With a set of red doorways, it is impossible not to make comparisons to Channel 4’s long-running improv show from the 1990s Whose Line is it Anyway? This, though, seems to be whose song is it anyway, or at least whose lyric next? With a red phone ringing it is not The Banker on the phone, rather the imaginary producer – Cameron. Our MC, or ‘writer’, for the evening, takes suggestions on what direction the next two hours is going to take. The cynics in the audience may think that a show requiring music, choreography and live harmonised singing cannot be entirely improvised but they are soon disarmed when the random suggestions come flying onto stage.
As a reviewer, therefore, this is a difficult one to write as this is a show that, by its very nature, can only ever be performed once. Settling on a musical set around a mortuary brilliantly entitled I Sing Dead People the seven performers and two musicians stride out onstage with so much confidence you would think they have been rehearsing this macabre sounding affair for the past couple of months. Taking various genres, styles, and composers of musical theatre over the past century the cast soon create a story centred upon a mortuary run by three sisters during World War I (or The Great War as they neatly point out that they don’t know there is going to be a Second World War yet). Opening with a Sondheim inspired catchy number that evolved to be titled Ding Dong You’re Dead this show is anything but. In true musical theatre fashion themes of betterment and escapism begin to emerge encapsulated in another on the spot triumph Keep Your Dreams in Your Spleen – a recurring message the performers anchor this particular show around.
Try as you might it is impossible to see the devices the company must use to keep the machine as well-oiled as it is. Performers seem to know when to leave the stage, how to further the story with small scenes of dialogue in between songs, which bit of set to reposition and, almost psychically, whose turn it is to sing next. Not once is the invisible ‘baton’ dropped. From musicianship to improvised lighting changes the company are so well tuned it is scary.
The opening number of the second half is created by interval tweets and a Cabaret inspired Kander &Ebb number called He’s My Destiny is concocted in front of our eyes even with Bob Fosse choreography! Taking in a little bit of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Billy Elliot on the way we come towards the end of the strange narrative with a song including the show’s title I Sing Dead People sung in the style of Webber &Rice’s Close Every Door. The performers’ chameleon-like responses to audience suggestions are extraordinary. They even manage to improvise little bits of philosophy and pearls of wisdom before their next song as one of the mortuary assistants declares that “death is just the other side of living”.
Making such a difficult craft look so effortless you may leave with awe towards the company but it is hard not to wonder whether a musical theatre composer or lyricist would exit the theatre in the same manner. Sending them into depression or despair is, I’m sure, not the aim of the Showstoppers company. Perhaps they could write a musical about it. But the chances are it won’t be as good.
Runs until September 24th