Wednesday 24 July 2013

The Fantasticks - Rose Bridge Theatre Company @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Children rarely do what they’re told, the little scamps.  In fact, they often do quite the opposite of what they’re told – especially when it comes to love. 

This is the central premise of Schmidt and Jones’ The Fantasticks, which premiered off-Broadway in 1960.  Taking huge inspiration from Shakespeare (Romeo And Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in particular), this commedia dell’arte fairytale tells the story of two neighbourly fathers who trick their children into falling in love by building a wall between their houses and feigning antagonism. 

The Fantasticks is the longest running show in history, receiving huge success from its fourty-two year run off-Broadway.  However, despite (or perhaps due to) the unabashed Shakespeare references, English audiences have never quite taken to the piece.  Director Neil Robinson poses that this is perhaps due to the reliance on stock characters: as with the ‘Pyramus and Thisby’ episode in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Fantasticks takes the form of an allegorical play-within-a-play.  This lends the piece an air of overt theatricality that creates its own wall in the face of naturalism or in humanising these characters.

The first character we witness, however, is The Mute (Greg Page), here used as the stage manager of the play-within-a-play.  It’s one of many clever conceits devised by Robinson to give a greater sense of purpose to the piece, and provides Page with plenty of (sometimes distracting) opportunities for comedy.

The musical itself, however, is patchy and inconsistent.  Particularly in the second act there is a lack of clear narrative direction; instead this is an abstract piece that jarringly leaps from one extreme to another, from scenes of blossoming youthful love, to the fathers’ plotting (that comically, if insensitively, revolves around rape) and to the silliness of the clown-like duo Henry Albertson (Seamus Newham) and Mortimer (James Weal).  Robinson's minimalist staging does allow the mind to wander and imagine each scenario, whilst the score provides suitable musical accompaniment to the varying characters: from fantastical harp-based ballads, to traditional showtunes, jazz numbers, and more Sondheim-esque dramatic pieces.  As a whole, though, The Fantasticks doesn’t quite feel cohesive.

That said, the cast grapple with the material and varying musical styles to offer some excellent performances.  Emma Harrold and James Irving truly shine as the young lovers – Luisa the brattish young girl with a rebellious streak that is easily corrupted, Matt the hopeless romantic who declares his love through poetry.  Gavin James’ El Gallo mysteriously narrates throughout, whilst Brian McCann and Tim Walton sure can belt out a tune as fathers Bellomy and Hucklebee.  The four-piece band play securely and, whilst the odd sound balance issue does surface, this is somewhat to be expected in such a fringe venue. 

The Fantasticks is certainly an odd little show that is likely to divide audiences.  At the least, however, Rose Bridge Theatre Company have brought a unique tale to London’s fringe theatre scene.


Watch: The Fantasticks is performed from the 23rd-27th July at the Jermyn Street Theatre.