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Royal Lyceum Theatre
Review by Thom Dibdin
It is unclear whether the book for Curtains, Southern Light Opera’s latest offering which is at the Royal Lyceum all week, is brave or simply foolhardy. But it certainly leaves its performers with a mountain to climb.
Not content with killing off its leading lady within five minutes Curtains goes on to describe the body of the hardworking, faithful theatre critic in the most vicious terms imaginable.
All of which is fair play and nicely ironic comment, to be honest, from a writing team that includes Rupert Holmes, music by John Kander and lyrics by Red Ebb. Less easy to master is the musical within the musical: Robbin’ Hood, which is just coming to a calamitous ending on its opening night as the curtain of Curtains rises.
Playing “bad” with any real conviction is a notoriously difficult art to master. The problem is making clear where the effected discords, missed cues and poor staging stop, and ensuring that they are neither masking nor mistaken for any real failings on the part of the performers.
And there is a lot of very dreadful performance called for in this truly risible “new musical of the Old West”. Not least from Lorna Frier who has the task of creating faded starlet Jessica Cranshaw: the star of Robbin’ Hood, who can’t sing, can’t dance and corpses at every cue.
Not that she has much time to do it, as Cranshaw is quickly disposed of, collapsed and hospitalised by the end of Robbin’ Hood’s second curtain-call. Leaving a jubilant cast to head for an opening night party that they can now be quite certain will double as closing night celebrations.
A crazy round of self-referential circularity
Except that she is not ill, but dead. And onto the stage of Boston’s Colonial Theatre steps Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, star-struck detective in the homicide squad of the Boston PD. And with the whole cast under suspicion, he has no option but to lock the doors and try to solve the murder while the Robbin’ Hood cast get on with reworking the show.
All told, it is a crazy round of self-referential circularity. At first it seems far too lax, there’s no focus and it reduces down to a succession of scenes which do little more than contrive to tell the steps of what is now a comedy whodunit.
There are plenty of great characters. Laura Jordan Reed has arguably the best of them as the ballsy producer, Carmen Bernstein – she with the memorable opinion of the critic: “What kind of putz would squeeze your nuts like that/Who could be prick enough?”.
She might lack in natural power to her voice, but Jordan Reed more than makes up for that with naked aggression and a ruthlessness to her character.
Alan Gow gives her a good run with his English director, Chris Belling. Prissy, egotistical and as ready to give a scathing opinion as take credit not due to him, Belling is a hilarious caricature.
Then there is Robbin’ Hood’s song-writing team: the once-married Georgia Hendricks (Judith Barron) and Aaron Fox (Malcolm Cannon). She’s dating the choreographer and he spends his time mooning around after her – living out regret. Even more so when she takes over the late Jessica Cranshaw’s role.
Add into the mix Lauren Burnett as Niki Harris, local Boston performer and Cranshaw’s understudy, who sees Robbin’ Hood as the way to make dreams of New York come true. And Jemma Crawford as “Bambi” Bernet, who simply is not being given the chance to let her true talent shine.
But great characters don’t necessarily make a great show. And the whole of the first half never quite gets into its stride. Peter Tomassi is immense as the Lieutenant – smitten with Niki and absolutely certain that he can help save the show as well as solve the crime.
You can just about discern the way that things are beginning to shape up, but it is all too loose. Intentionally dreadful scenes apart, the choreography needs tightening up, with long-serving members of the dance-troupe looking lost at times.
There are lead performers who don’t bother to do anything with their characters unless they are active within a scene, and there is a real disparity of conviction within the chorus – while several members convince, there are others who are too happy to simply wave their arms around.
Come the second half and it all begins to slip into place – starting with an inspired little cameo from MD Peter Robinson in the pit to open the half. As the company begins to find a gear it is comfortable with, director Andy Johnston ensures that all the little references to theatre, whodunits and musicals begin to resonate. Which makes for a big, punchy and satisfying final scene.
This is the first the first time that the 115 year-old Southern Light Opera Company has been at the Royal Lyceum since 1924. So some of the early failings might be down to coping with a smaller stage size than the company is used to in its usual home at the King’s.
But once this gets going, it really fizzes in a way that you would hardly have thought possible at the interval.
Run ends Saturday 19 May
Running time: 2 hours 50 mins
Performances: 7.30pm nightly (2.30pm Sat. mat.)
Royal Lyceum Theatre website: www.lyceum.org.uk
Southern Light Opera website: www.southernlightopera.co.uk