Sunday 19 June 2011

1888 - Silhouette Theatre Productions @The Union Theatre

"1888 a dark era of change..."

Not so much in this production - a jolly, riotous laugh of a musical.  There are those musicals that offer cheesy, camp fun and those, such as Sweeney Todd, that explore the darker side of life.  1888 attempts to straddle the two but, in its current state, requires more focus to bring the disparate elements and ideas together.

Set in this infamous year, the plot depicts a group of London lowlives and high society players as they get swept along in the Jack the Ripper saga.  Unfortunately, these aren't the most interesting of characters and I can't help but feel a musical based on Jack himself would have been more thrilling.  The characters never truly feel in danger and the narrative lacks suspense and mystery.  Instead, the theatre is filled with vibrant comedy and music hall numbers that fail to merge into a coherent whole.  Structurally, the songs are not integrated into the narrative, acting more as stand-alone set-pieces, each introduced simply with a piano chord.  The lyrics in the more sinister moments were also rather grotesque, though overall a darker, more twisted mood would be welcome.  Perhaps the music hall numbers could have been used as a structuring device, Cabaret style, to help drive the narrative along?

The Union Theatre is a wonderful setting, its cobbled floors and musty smell offering an authentic 19th century feel.  The theatre space was very well dressed and clever use of staging utilised different areas of the room.  The cast brought the space to life with comedy performances and (I suspect) much ad-libbing.  Steph Hampton in particular had expert comic timing and a real sense of pathos - something the more tender moments were generally missing.  Simultaneously, the theatre worked against the cast, highlighting some tuning problems in the exposed singing (though Matthew Ibbotson's voice shone) and offering little space for the dance numbers.

Whilst the performances were entertaining, the show itself feels a little rough around the edges.  But, this being a new musical, it is still a work in progress.  With an overhauled narrative structure, an augmented cast and a less synthesised musical score, the show does have potential - it just needs an injection of dark change.