Paul Vale believes the London Fringe’s commitment to new musical theatre has reaped dividends in 2015.
As 2015 draws to a close, it’s worth contemplating some of the new musicals which have made their mark on the Fringe over the year. Truth be told it’s been a bumper year, with projects that have occasionally proved more satisfying than some of the new musicals in the West End.
* Yarico – London Theatre Workshop *
The year got off to a fantastic start in February with Yarico at the London Theatre Workshop. The venue had already presented Apartment 40c, which transferred to the St James Studio for a brief reincarnation, but Yarico was an entirely different kettle of fish. Based on a true story, popular in the 1800s, the piece told the story of a Amerindian girl, sold into slavery by the man whose life she has saved. Written by Carl Miller and Paul Leigh with music by James McConnel, the team married an exceptionally strong story with a percussion-heavy score to create one of the most polished musical theatre pieces of the year. Produced by Jodie Kidd, which guaranteed a good deal of publicity at the time, Yarico was an early highlight in a venue that features twice in this list.
* Shock Treatment – King’s Head Theatre *
April saw the much-awaited opening of Shock Treatment, a musical based on the movie of the same name, written by none other than Richard O’Brien. Not quite the cult musical that Rocky Horror became, Shock Treatment features a few of the same characters and is often seen as a sequel to the perennial favourite currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. The show maintained excellent production values, including a sharply designed set from Tim Shortall, and featured a fantastic cast including Mateo Oxley as Ralph Hapschatt and a sublime Julie Atherton as Janet.
* The Clockmaker’s Daughter – Landor Theatre *
Certainly the best musical to feature at the Landor this year was Michael Webborn and Daniel Finn’s The Clockmaker’s Daughter, an original piece directed by Robert McWhir. Exquisitely designed by David Shields, with lighting by Richard Lambert, this new piece was a magical tale of a lonely clockmaker who breathed life into an automaton. Part Pinocchio, part Pygmalion, Webborn’s exceptional score reflected the darker element of the story but retained the charm of parochial life in this fictional European village.
* Fanny and Stella – The Shocking True Story – Above the Stag Theatre *
May also saw the arrival of Fanny and Stella – The Shocking True Story at the Above the Stag theatre in Vauxhall. The UK’s only dedicated venue for LGBT work, Fanny and Stella came from the pen of Above the Stag regular Glenn Chandler. Based on the true story of a pair of Victorian drag queens arraigned for appearing in women’s clothes in public, Fanny and Stella was something of a surprise as a musical. Adopting a music hall style for the numbers, Charles Miller’s original music hall numbers, lampooning the pair’s own private life, were both witty and stylish, while the story – practically lost in all but the annals of gay history – is deeply moving.
* The House of Mirrors and Hearts – Arcola Theatre *
Katy Lipson and Aria Entertainment constantly champion new musical theatre writing and in July the company collaborated with Perfect Pitch to produce The House of Mirrors and Hearts at the Arcola. A bit of a mouthful of a title, the show however was a meticulously constructed psychological thriller written by Robert Gilbert, complemented by a gripping score from Eamonn O’Dwyer (both collaborated on the lyrics). Supported by acutely judged performances from Grace Rowe, Molly McGuire and especially Gillian Kirkpatrick as an embittered, alcoholic mother.
* Edinburgh – Cautionary Tales for Daughters – Songs Your Mother Never Taught You, UKIP – The Musical, Love Birds *
Come August, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was a hotbed of new musical writing and threw up three particularly polished pieces of work.
Cautionary Tales for Daughters – Songs Your Mother Never Taught You at the Surgeons Hall was a song cycle from Tanya Holt, Robin Kingsland and Daniel Dibden. While not a musical in the strict form, it did showcase some excellent, narrative songwriting skills using comedy and music to expose the truth about how young girls are expected at so many levels to conform and comply.
Again at the Surgeons Hall, UKIP! The Musical won The Stage Award for Acting Excellence. A musical political satire, the musical was extremely funny, featuring some great tunes while tapping into a still extremely raw subject. It certainly made a fantastic calling card musical for Cath Day, who singlehandedly wrote the book, music and lyrics.
Finally, Love Birds at the Pleasance featured another solo hand in charge of the book, music and lyrics. Robert J Sherman may have son-writing blood in his veins – he is the son and nephew of the brothers Sherman of Disney fame -– but that is no guarantee of success. Love Birds, however, was a triumph of whimsy, a children’s story written with adult sensibilities and featuring a cracking score that celebrated the lost era of vaudeville. Blessed with an equally strong design from Gabriella Slade and some marvellously sensitive performances, Love Birds was probably the most accomplished piece of musical theatre to arise from the many delights at this year’s festival.
* The Etienne Sisters – Theatre Royal Stratford East *
Back to London and September saw the opening of The Etienne Sisters at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Written by Che Walker and featuring songs by Anoushka Lucas and Sheila Atim, the musical told the story of family’s attempt to survive after the death of their mother. A barebones design from Ti Green accentuated the bold narrative style of Walker’s text and the soaring grace of Lucas and Atim’s songs.
Red Riding Hood – Pleasance Theatre
Christmas is not usually a busy time for musicals but two popped up in December that were definitely worth noting. Red Riding Hood at the Pleasance was a story for children by Jake Brunger (book and lyrics) and Pippa Cleary (music and lyrics), based on the famous nursery rhyme. Brunger’s book opened up the rhyme to create a host of sharp ideas and carefully rounded characters, making Riding Hood a perfectly formed piece of musical theatre for young people.
Through the Mill – London Theatre Workshop
Finally, it was back to the London Theatre Workshop for Through the Mill. Admittedly there was no new score here and, in fact, all the songs were classic Garland. What was particularly interesting was author Ray Rackham’s handling of the material. The story was not an unknown one, but the staging of the three Garlands – Lucy Penrose, Belinda Wollaston and Helen Sheals – playing out their drama independently, yet occasionally harmonising on the bigger numbers, was sheer genius. A riveting, deeply theatrical take on an old story.
Readers can see reviews of all the above shows at www.musicaltheatrereview.com.