Xanadu continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 21 November.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Comedy musical Xanadu isn’t as stupid as it looks – but nothing could be quite that stupid. The tale of a Greek muse who comes to earth to inspire a 1980s mural painter through the medium of roller disco and fake Australian accents is relentlessly camp and outrageously silly. But beneath all the glitter and leg warmers lies a musical that performs a sleight of hand, pretending to be a slight confection but in the process delivering a visual and comedic treat that is far better crafted than most musicals.
Based on one of the worst films of all time (the Olivia Newton-John vehicle was so bad that it directly inspired the creation of the Razzie Awards, which celebrate truly, deeply awful movies) the stage adaptation chooses to embrace the original film’s ridiculous concept, refusing to see it as anything other than a rich vein of comedy. But while Douglas Carter Beane’s book pokes fun at the set-up, using the absurd storyline to effect a satire on the vogue for both movie adaptations and jukebox musicals, it does so by conforming to the strictures of a genre it clearly loves.
Shining throughout is Carly Anderson as Clio, the muse who adopts the persona of Kira (replete with over-the-top Aussie accent) in order to inspire artist Sonny (Samuel Edwards). Anderson’s relentless chirpiness and good heart, coupled with a roller skating ability that is evident throughout, sells Xanadu’s central conceit all by itself. Clio/Kira is the Elle Woods of Olympus, one of those rare characters that shows it’s possible to write roles for women that are feminine, strong, romantic and inspirational all at once – something that many other musicals seem to struggle with.
Her sisters, the other muses, provide an immensely strong ensemble. Chief among these is Alison Jiear’s Melpomene, who is upset that their father Zeus has promised the mysterious gift of Xanadu to Clio. Her scheming to get Clio to fall in love with Sonny, thus breaking the rules of the gods and incurring Zeus’ wrath, provides many of the show’s numerous comedy highlights. Jiear is assisted here by Lizzy Connolly as Calliope, whose line readings elevate the hi-jinks still further.
Director Paul Warwick Griffin and choreographer Nathan M Wright combine forces to ensure that not only is Xanadu visually arresting at all times, but it is able to embellish its huge swaths of cliche with dashes of inventiveness. This is especially noticeable during some of the songs (by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar) that, on their own, might not be particularly worthy of belonging in a musical. Nowhere is this more evident in the anodyne ‘Have You Never Been Mellow’. The show’s worst song is ameliorated with a panoply of characters from Greek mythology, whose interplay with each other is in keeping with their mythological origins while still retaining connections to Clio and Sonny’s love story.
Also impressive is the sound design. Some previous musical productions at the Southwark Playhouse have suffered in this regard, but here not only are the singers’ voices and the band (led by musical director Andrew Bevis) perfectly balanced, but the reverb given to the Greek gods adds the requisite pomposity without ever risking clarity. So many Fringe shows fail to get such details right that it’s refreshing to be able to hear everything in balance for once.
In the end, it becomes impossible to resist the charms of this deceptively shallow show. Never shy of poking fun at itself, at one point a character describes the unfolding spectacle as “children’s theatre for gay 40-year-olds”. And it is that, true – but it’s also far more, and becomes one of the most fun musicals of recent years.