Bumblescratch premiered in a one-off gala performance at the Adelphi Theatre, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Robert J Sherman took the bold – some might say ill-advised – step of effectively workshopping the latest incarnation of his new musical Bumblescratch in front of a large paying crowd at a charity gala premiere at the 1,500-seat Adelphi. It was a gamble that I genuinely hope pays off, as at the core of this big, goofy, ambitious show beats a warm heart, with memorable characters and a delightful score.
Sherman, in another bold step, provides libretto, music and lyrics for this sung-through show. In what is undoubtedly a love letter to London, we see the plague-ridden city of 1665 through the eyes of Melbourne Bumblescratch, a charming but delinquent rat who survives by spinning outrageous yarns and indulging in a little petty thievery.
Hanging on his every word is Perry, a young orphan rat he befriends at the top of the show – a ratful dodger to Bumblescratch’s Fagan. Rounding off a quartet of leads is the eponymous rat’s bedraggled and nagging fiancée Bethesda, and Socrates, King of the Rat Pack, who falls fouls of Bumblescratch’s pickpocketing and demands revenge.
This semi-staged rat’s tail… sorry, tale… unfolds (and unfortunately refolds and unfolds a few more times) in the run-up to the dramatic irony that is the Great Fire of London, which probably-not-coincidentally had its 350th anniversary just a few days earlier. It’s told using very few props, although the imaginative costumes by Justin Allin really give this production a visual boost. MD Tom Kelly’s top-notch 10-piece band was positioned at the rear, pushing all of the relentless action to front of stage.
Sherman’s (37 or so plentiful) songs are rich, varied and catchy – from baroque to the Beatles, all masterfully arranged by Rowland Lee – and kept the cast on their toes with their knotty lyrics.
With overtones of Lionel Bart, Leslie Bricusse and Gilbert and Sullivan, there’s a very British feel to the music, with some American/Disney colour courtesy of the Sherman Brothers (Sherman Jr of course being the latest in the dynasty).
Bumblescratch appears in almost every scene, and hats off to the talented Darren Day for bringing this rogue to life with such energy and enthusiasm. It’s a big sing – surely anyone would struggle to deliver this role night after night? – so kudos to Day for going the distance and rolling so effortlessly with the occasional technical faults.
Jessica Martin was underused as Bethesda, although she did double for the Widow MacGregor – a character conjured up (or was she?!) from Bumblescratch’s vivid imagination.
Also woefully underused was the fantastic Michael Xavier. His character – a salty seadog of a pirat(e) named Captain Hookbeard, another figment of Bumblescratch’s cheese-addled brain – lit up the stage and brought much-needed humour to the proceedings.
It was clear he was having a lot of fun with the role, so no surprise that he received a hearty cheer from the audience at the end.
Jacob Chapman, too, was on top form as the pantomime villain Socrates, with his booming, barrel-chested baritone.
The greatest roar of the night, though, was reserved for the incredible talent that is Ilan Galkoff. This perky 13-year-old stole the show as Perry, bounding around the stage with limitless energy and knocking out song after song without once missing a note or dropping a step of Stewart Nicholls’ faultless direction and choreography. His adorable Perry was a sheer joy to behold and there’s no doubt that this is talent that we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the West End.
There are simply not enough new book musicals out there – how many can you name in the West End at the moment? – so respect to Sherman and co for staging an almost-full-scale, all-new original book musical in London. With just two weeks to pull it all together, the combined forces did a most impressive job.
There are problems with the show as it currently stands, though, mostly related to its ambitious scope and epic length. It’s bum-numbingly long, the story takes too many confusing detours – not helped by its sung-through nature – and there are just too many songs. The rat-human relationship that develops didn’t work for me, nor did the religious epiphany near the end of Act I. But there’s a great, family-friendly show in here. (Okay, perhaps the scene of a prostitute being devoured by a hungry rat is a little off key!)
Was it too soon to be offered up to a paying audience? Arguably yes, although a quick straw poll of some of the kids at the interval suggested that they were loving it, so it’s going in the right direction. (And it was a fundraiser for Variety, the children’s charity, so no complaints there.)
Bumblescratch could do with the help of a dramaturg to pan the material for the gold that it undoubtedly offers. It’s full to bursting with novel ideas, so a few judicious snips would still leave us with plenty to enjoy. But even in its current form, it gave me more pleasure than most of the jukebox shows or movie remakes hogging the West End.
I genuinely look forward to seeing it again soon, in whatever shape it might take, and ideally with a cast as talented as this.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Robert J. Sherman reveals new musical Love Birds