The 27 club is pretty exclusive. It includes the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and most recently Amy Winehouse – all musicians who died at the age of 27 from substance abuse or violence. For most, the age is just a coincidence, but it’s also led to plenty of conspiracy theories.
27 attempts to create its own theory. It’s an homage to these artists but based around a fictional rock band – The Argonauts – whose lead singer Orpheus makes a pact with the devil in return for fame and fortune.
Of course, that devil is a music exec with a demonic team of assistants who drive Orpheus – already addicted to drugs – to self-destruction. If the musical is meant as a comment on the music industry, it’s a lazy one. It’s all too easy to blame record labels for not supporting their artists. Yet here the band are also given an outdated sense of style: their ‘makeover’ transforms them from everyday lads to an 80s hair metal pastiche, complete with Guns and Roses t-shirt, long hair and skin-tight jeans. And that’s after the band bicker about trying too hard to be cool. The industry moved on from this shtick years ago.
That sense of cool is just one of many problems with 27. Another fundamental flaw is the lack of stage time for the band. We’re meant to believe they’re the greatest band of their generation off the back of dialogue rather than actually witnessing their performances first hand - there's a drummer who never drums, a guitarist who never strums, and a singer who's forever glum. The plot whips through a four year career in a matter of seconds and expects us to jump with them, but writer Sam Cassidy has set himself up to fail.
Then there’s the utterly contrived and predictable nature of the plot. And that’s not just from the title and its conspiracies, but from the abysmal Greek myth parallels shoe-horned in. What starts off as simply character names in the first act turns into a full fantasy in the second as Orpheus must travel through the Underworld to literally face his demons (demonic versions of the first act’s characters) and save his girlfriend, defying the witchy diva fates (led by Jodie Jacobs) and a charismatic Hades (Ryan Molloy). We knew Orpheus would die from before we even entered the theatre. Incidentally, the girlfriend's death by substance abuse is also easily predicted considering her name is Amy. It’s all utterly contrite.
At times, though, it’s actually quite enjoyable. In these fantastical moments, the show becomes tongue in cheek and the often dire script amuses for the right reasons. What’s more, the highly energetic choreography from Arlene Phillips is exciting to watch and the blinding, strobing lights make us all feel like we’re part of a music video. Matt Wills’s score also has its moments, offering catchy (if derivative) pop songs accompanied by screaming guitars.
Yet the show is on the whole stylistically confused. Amongst all this fantastical rubbish, it’s actually trying to tell a touching and emotional story of drug abuse and psychological demons. At times it even succeeds: Greg Oliver delivers a powerful song at the start of the second act as Orpheus’s life slips through his fingers. And Cassie Compton rises above the material with her performance as Amy, offering a stunning vocal even if her reasons for loving Orpheus are nowhere to be seen. But these moments cannot coexist alongside the fantasy without being laughably undermined.
What’s more, with its attempts at poignancy in the finale, 27 seems to suggest that the real-life artists are remembered, celebrated and eulogised because of their deaths rather than their music. It wallows in tragedy and misery whilst ignoring the spectacular talent these artists brought to the world. In the process, it spectacularly misses the point.
Watch: 27 runs at the Cockpit Theatre until October 22nd.
Photos: Nick Ross