Men Who March Away played for one night only at St Anne’s Limehouse, London.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
While he might be better known for his musical contribution to TV’s The Wombles – and his management of various pop acts since the 1970s – Mike Batt has a long if sporadic history with the musical.
As well as composing his own major West End show – The Hunting of the Snark, staged in 1991 at the Prince Edward Theatre – he was credited as co-writer on the hit song ‘Phantom of the Opera’, released by Sarah Brightman and Steve Harley in 1986 as a teaser for the upcoming musical of the same name.
He created the impressive orchestral score and lyrics for The Dreamstone (1990–95), a TV series with a soundtrack supplied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and wrote and performed in Zero Zero, an experimental TV musical for Australia.
Despite Snark ending prematurely in the West End, the indefatigable Batt wrote music and lyrics for another full musical, entitled Men Who March Away… An Epic Musical Love Story.
Owing to other commitments, his show remained unstaged for 25 years, until recently, when the score was dusted off and given a welcome airing by the Docklands Sinfonia for a one-off semi-staged concert at the orchestra’s home in St Anne’s church, Limehouse, conducted by the composer himself.
Men Who March Away recounts the tale of two friends from opposite ends of the social spectrum: military man George Denham and musical hall comedian Billy Brown, both of whom fall in love with middle-class lass Katherine Grayling, whose passion is to defy her parents and perform on the East End stage.
Framed by the First and Second World Wars, and encompassing the Spanish Civil War, the story of their love triangle is played out against the backdrop of conflict, with all the dramatic irony that the wars offer.
Like so much of the drama inspired by the great wars, the book is prone to mawkish sentimentalism, but with Batt at the helm, it boasts a rich score and musical inventiveness that, for me, way outshines the book. The end result is a very effective and emotional piece that sounds terrific in the hands of a full-scale orchestra and performed by a vibrant, enthusiastic cast.
Taking the three lead roles were young performers with a great future ahead of them. Alex Southern captured the pomposity of a First World War officer perfectly, even if on occasion he veered towards Blackadder’s General Melchett.
Oliver Bower was perfectly cast as the cheeky chappy Billy, and strongest of all was Alice Frankham as Katherine. All three had no problems vocally, each in very strong voice and handling the demands of their roles, despite a very short rehearsal period.
The supporting cast, in turn, tackled the ambitious demands of this more-than-semi-staged production, dealing with complex set pieces. Mass combat is particularly difficult on stage, but was dealt with nicely here – and Cristian Valle’s energetic choreography.
The set design was more complex than one would expect for a concert performance – only props supervisor Emma Dunning was credited in the programme – although unfortunately the scene changes were a little clunky, with no music provided to cover the awkward stumblings of the stage hands.
A minor peccadillo, but one that could have so easily been rectified with a repeat of the previous number’s last few bars.
Musically ambitious, the score certainly evoked the period, with Batt capturing the spirit of the age whether on the music hall stage, in the throes of battle on the front line, or in the emotional scenes back home.
Particularly impressive was the entr’acte after the interval, in which the youthful Docklands Sinfonia sparkled with Spanish-themed motifs and set the scene for the coming drama in the Civil War.
Two songs were familiar – ‘The Closest Thing to Crazy’ and ‘Market Day in Guernica’, both very tender and emotional songs that were released by pop star Katie Melua, the British-Georgian singer managed by Batt under his Dramatico label. As the composer was at pains to stress in his short introductory chat, these songs were not just thrown into the show, they formed part of the original score. Whatever, they’re lovely songs.
A few other standout numbers remained fresh in the mind afterwards, particularly the title song and the emotive ‘The Love That Never Went Away’, which was nicely reprised as ‘The Pain That Never Goes Away’.
Crucially, the songs all drive the drama forward, yet work as impressive stand-alone numbers. There’s absolutely no doubting the fact that Batt can write a good, catchy, memorable song – and he’s at his most interesting with the more rhythmically and melodically challenging numbers.
Effectively a public workshop, Men Who March Away was an audacious showcase of a piece that has all the right ingredients for a fully staged work. But it needs work – a good trim in the first half and ideally some collaboration on the book – and the right space to thrive.
A 55-piece orchestra helps, which you’re not going to get in the West End anytime soon, so it will be interesting to see what Batt does with it next…
* Look out for an interview with composer MIKE BATT coming soon!