Water Babies continues at Curve, Leicester, until 17 May.
Steampunk meets end-of-the-pier show in a lavishly marketed musical that is visually stunning and technically wizard but doesn’t hang together and doesn’t quite know what it really is. Water Babies has its premiere at Curve, where the great height of the stage provides the perfect launch pad – literally – for Tom’s underwater adventures. Only now is the technology and timing right for putting Charles Kingsley’s moral fairy tale on to the musical stage, suggests its co-producer, Peter Shaw.
The story is partly transposed to modern times, with a teenage Tom (Thomas Milner) lured into Grimes’ edgy, impudent, street dancing gang – “Nothing’s off limits if it gets you what you want” – and framed and tried in court for a rooftop robbery, during which he briefly meets and falls in love with Ellie (Lauren Samuels). Louise Dearman plays the wise and sensible fairy godmother figure, Mrs D (Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by), his guide through life if only he would listen to her.
Two-thirds of the show is set underwater, and this is magically achieved through lighting and special effects. All credit to Amy Jackson for the inventive and outrageous costume design and Morgan Large for the submerged set. Stealers of the show are the eccentric cycle-riding trio of Andy Gray, Samuel Holmes and Tom Davey as Jock, Terrence and Claude (lobster, seahorse and swordfish), to whom the audience warms as in panto. And that’s the thing about this show – it’s more panto than musical in many respects, with a flamboyant, Dracula-style villain in Eel (Tom Lister). In the vaudeville setting of his Electric Theatre, he relishes electrocuting the ten imprisoned Water Babies.
There are echoes of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys in their hunger for a story, the framework of the plot and a device for returning frequently to Ellie. Samuels give a clear and beautifully judged performance throughout, and ‘Waiting For You’, along with ‘Die Another Day’ are the most powerful numbers in a show where the music – played live by an eight-piece band offstage – is not particularly memorable (the score is by composer Chris Egan, with book and lyrics by Ed Curtis – who also directs – and Guy Jones). Dearman is an anchor, a strong presence with an effortlessly produced voice, but although Milner gains in confidence, he seems eclipsed, and doesn’t engage with us enough to put us on side.
“Once you let go of the past, you can pick the future,” is the moral of the story. It’s a long way from chimney sweeps and climbing boys but it does catch the zeitgeist.
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Lauren Samuels is making waves with the Water Babies – Interview
Richard E Grant to star as hologram in Water Babies musical – News