Barbershopera! The Three Musketeers was performed at the St James Theatre Studio, London, and tours until 26 October.
For those who have never seen a Barbershopera! production before, the name accurately suggests close harmony a cappella singing, within a conventional narrative structure. And while that’s perfectly true, the name doesn’t quite capture the anarchic nature of the comedy involved.
Barbershopera has successfully retained the cut-price, let’s-put-on-the-show-right-here atmosphere so redolent of its Edinburgh Festival Fringe origins. Its first two shows, Barbershopera and The Barber of Shavingham, have been adapted and broadcast on Radio 4 – and now its fourth musical, The Three Musketeers, expands into a full two-act production.
Alexandre Dumas’ novel has formed the basis of several musical interpretations before – a 1928 version with lyrics co-written by PG Wodehouse and a 2001 version by George Stiles and Paul Leigh, only scratch the surface of the number of musical stagings. None has dared attempt to stage it as a cross-dressing, four-person a cappella production, though – and after this riotous evening, one can only feel the other productions are missing a trick.
Laura Darton’s D’Artagnan (first name Nicole – named only for the purposes of a joke that will go over the heads of anyone too young to remember a certain series of car ads) travels to Paris to seek the help of the Musketeers in overturning an English pudding trade embargo. Meanwhile, the King of France is having an illicit affair with the Duke of Buckingham and, while his subjects are denied their roly polys, is secretly partaking of his lover’s spotted dick.
The humour is very much in the vein of Carry On’s best, with a dollop of ’Allo ’Allo’s language mangling and Asterix’s views of Britons thrown in for good measure. The broad comedy brush strokes mean that the gay characters will hardly be winning any awards for being progressive portrayals, but Russell Walker’s raucous, party-loving Duke of Buckingham forms the centrepiece of so many great scenes that it’s hard to complain – and the plaintive melody of ‘Unrequited By the World’ strikes a beautiful chord.
Rob Castell and Tom Sadler’s songs balance a respect for the period setting with the requirements of barbershop and also musical references that audiences will recognise – from starting with an arrangement of ‘La Marseillaise’, and splashes of Boublil and Schonberg’s Les Miserables and Ashman and Menken’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame recognisable throughout. Fans of the 1990s children’s cartoon series Dogtanian and the Four Muskehounds are not left out, either.
And when it comes to the performers, it’s imperative for a piece where every number is sung in four-piece a cappella that the voices work well together, and thankfully they do. Each performer is able to move effortlessly from a lead vocal to a wordless backing with ease, giving this musical a unique flavour which at times heightens the humour, and at others underplays it with a sense of genuine emotion. Most effective is Harry Stone’s deep bass resonance, although he fares less well in his upper register – but the combination of his voice with those of Darton, Walker and Barbershopera! regular Pete Sorel Cameron mean that this new troupe of Barbershopera! performers should entertain audiences for some time to come.