Thursday, 29 August 2013

Theatre review: [title of show]

A musical so self-referential it occasionally threatens to swallow itself, [title of show] chronicles its own creation. Songwriter Jeff Bowen (Simon Bailey) and book writer Hunter Bell (Scott Garnham) get wind of a musical theatre festival with only three weeks before the deadline. Without a story to hang a whole new musical onto, they decide to write about the process of writing, turning their frustrated conversations and workshops into the script and songs. Bringing in actresses Heidi (Sophia Ragavelas) and Susan (Sarah Galbraith) they end up with a quirky show that's a hit at the festival and gets a much-loved off-Broadway transfer. But this level of success leads Hunter to set his sights on a Broadway run, and the long process of trying to get the show ready for a wider audience puts a strain on the quartet's friendships.

Having originated in 2004, [title of show] finally made it to Broadway in 2008, but after failed attempts to bring it to the West End its London debut is a more appropriately fringe-sized one, with Robert McWhir directing at the Landor, its usual ambitious sets stripped back to a bare rehearsal room. And right from the start this feels like the right place for it, an intimate story in love with Broadway trivia ("Monkeys and Playbills" is based entirely around the titles of notorious Broadway flops.)

Bailey and Garnham are hugely endearing as the camp, enthusiastic writers, pedantic and sweaty respectively and prone to panic when writer's block hits. Although initially set up as rivals, Heidi and Susan are actually the steadying influence encouraging the men to keep going - Heidi an actress with a steady stream of swing roles in the big shows, Susan one who's given it up for a dispiriting day job, both finding something of what they hoped theatre would be in the lo-fi show. Ragavelas and Galbraith are both in strong voice and very likeable.

As is the show itself, for its first hour: The songs aren't the most memorable and are, by their own admission, largely pastiche, but it's hard not to get sucked into the enthusiasm and silliness of songs like "The Tony Award Song," which is quickly abandoned as it's far too pandering, and "Die, Vampire, Die," in which Susan attacks the barriers to creativity. The initial storyline of the two writers and two actresses trying to get something ready for performance in three weeks never lets up its energy, but once we get past the festival the show started to lose me. I guess the fact that the goal keeps shifting to something bigger and more ambitious is the whole point, but it means the initial impetus is gone, and the story of spats and reconciliations feels all too familiar. I ended up thinking how many Broadway musicals seem to be about Broadway musicals, something that didn't seem like an issue in the sillier first half. And letting the piano accompanist Larry (Michael Webborn) speak is only funny because of its rarity, so the amount of times the gag's used has inevitable diminishing returns.

Perhaps the fact that the show is about itself is what invites criticism so easily - even as you're watching the musical it's obvious its strength lies in its intimate charm, so the creators' / characters' plan to get it to a huge stage is obviously flawed from the start. Although the play itself doesn't chronicle its own story that far, [title of show] did make it to Broadway, where it closed after three months, a show whose stated intent is to be "Nine People's Favourite Thing" not being able to fill a 900-seat theatre for long. There's not much to fault in McWhir's production or the four performances, but it's a shame that a show that, despite being about itself, somehow manages to avoid self-indulgence for two-thirds of its running time, succumbs to it in the end.

[title of show] by Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen is booking until the 14th of September at the Landor Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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