It is getting on for 30 years since Dave Willetts took over from Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and then did the same with Michael Crawford in the title role of The Phantom of the Opera, but although the big-money days may be long past, this 60-something can still hold an audience under his spell with the power and finesse of a pitch-perfect voice.
Willetts uses that voice to dramatic effect in The Man Inside, a pared-down three-hander of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson novella The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which for many of us growing up was a first hint that madness and ‘normality’ (whatever that is) might be much closer neighbours than we thought.
After a tryout at the Everyman Studio in Cheltenham, this production at Clapham’s dinky Landor Theatre is officially the world premiere of a show, with music by Tony Rees, book and lyrics by Rees and his Australian collaborator Gary Young, and input by Willetts himself, that has been a long time in gestation.
At 70 minutes it certainly does not outstay its welcome and the 20 songs, most of them earnest ballads but with the odd bit of humour from Jessie Lilley’s low-life trollop who sees the Hyde side of Dr Jekyll’s split personality, held my attention without making me feel there was anything remarkable about them.
Contrasting with Lilley’s Lizzie is Alexandra Fisher’s sweet, pure, supporting Katherine, the beautiful girl Jekyll wants to marry if he can get past the lady’s disapproving father who keeps all his letters away from her. These are two nicely counterpointed roles, excellently sung and acted, but of course it is Willetts’ show and what a pleasure it is to hear material delivered with such feeling.
Sadly, too many of the ballads sound similar, both in pace and content. There’s little doubt that Rees and Young are hoping to catch some Lloyd Webber magic in the way some of the songs are phrased, yet I particularly liked ‘I Believe in You’, ‘I Dreamed of You’, the haunting title song and ‘I Don’t Know What to Do’, which the three of them performed together most effectively.
The piano work of MD Matheson Bayley is of the highest order and deserves special mention (Dara Stewart’s double bass lending fine support) but director Robert McWhir needs to bring more variety to a piece that repeats itself too often for such a short work – and he must change Dr Jekyll’s overcoat which looks more 1986 than 1886.
Rees’ score reflects a more modern and relevant perspective on a storyline that’s now almost 140 years old and poses the question: Can we always blame ‘the man inside’ or some form of drug dependancy, or do we just fail to realise it is up to us to draw the line at our own personal accountability?
We’ve had Jekyll and Hyde musicals before, notably the 1997 big Broadway version which toured the UK twice, in 2004-5 and again in 2011, with Paul Nicholas and Marti Pellow in the title role. This mini-version also hopes to tour the provinces before finding a spot in one of the smaller West End theatres. I wish it well but wouldn’t bet on it.