Thursday, 22 October 2015

Theatre review: Xanadu

You'd imagine an '80s-themed jukebox musical based on a notorious Olivia Newton-John movie about a roller-disco to be very, very camp. But actually Douglas Carter Beane's 2007 stage version of Xanadu will surprise you. By being so much camper than you'd ever expected. "Wow, this is like children's theatre for 40-year-old gay people!" is how one of the characters describes it: It's Venice Beach, California in 1980, and street artist Sonny (Samuel Edwards) has drawn a chalk picture of (seven of) the nine muses on a wall, but isn't quite happy with it. To help him with inspiration, the real leader of the ancient Greek muses, Clio (Carly Anderson,) descends from Olympus. But instead of helping him with his art, together they hatch a plan to create the ultimate expression of all arts, from music to dance to epic poetry: A roller-disco in an abandoned theatre called the Xanadu.

Of course, the two fall in love in the process, but this is a problem because Zeus (Nigel Barber) has forbidden the muses from loving mortals. Also banned, on pain of eternal suffering, are revealing their true nature to a mortal (Clio is posing as a chirpy Australian called Kira,) and creating art directly rather than through a human vessel. Naturally Clio soon breaks all three rules.

There's also trouble from Clio's sister Melpomene (Alison Jiear) who, aggrieved at not being made leader of the muses despite being the eldest, is determined to see Clio banished to the underworld and hatches a number of magic plots with the help of her sidekick, the dopey, inexplicably Brooklyn-accented Calliope (Lizzy Connolly, whose facial expressions frequently steal the show.) But it's Jiear who gets a song that's been added to the show specially for the London premiere: Newton-John's hit "Physical" gives Melpomene the opportunity to tempt her sister by taking her to Muscle Beach to look at the bodybuilders' arses.

And while Jeff Lynne & John Farrar's musical numbers, culminating in the famous title song, are a lot of fun, it's the shamelessness of the camp value Carter Beane puts in his script that's the most memorable thing about the show, and something that Paul Warwick Griffin's production takes and runs with. From the first introduction of the muses - to keep the cast size small, two of them are male and another two are waved off as being in the band somewhere - there's tongue-in-cheek fourth wall-breaking about art in general and staging a low-budget musical in particular: At one point we're told Calliope can't make the scene because of cast doubling, and Connolly's reaction is priceless.

(Comparatively) low-budget it may be but that doesn't stop designer Morgan Large from pulling out all the stops: Phill may have complained that Sonny's cut-off jeans weren't short enough or frayed enough to be authentically 1980, but everywhere else the costumes, somewhere between ancient Greek robes and gold lamé hot pants, are a triumph. And if you think things can't get sillier than the appearance of Pegasus, there's a whole array of random mythical creatures waiting in the wings for an insane finale.

Anderson is not only an endearingly overexcitable lead as Clio/Kira, she also has to do the vast majority of the show on roller-skates, her gentle floating across the stage adding even more surreally comic effect. Edwards is goofily sexy as Sonny and the whole cast get a lot of energetic dance numbers, whether on roller-skates or not, in Nathan M. Wright's choreography. I went with Phill, Alex and Richard, and all of us laughed from start to finish. OTT but also detailed in fitting in every gag possible, it's the sort of show you want to see again before it's even finished; surely this should follow In The Heights in getting a further life after the Southwark run ends. And remember, leg-warmers can save your life.

Xanadu by Douglas Carter Beane, Jeff Lynne, John Farrar, Steve Kipner and Terry Shaddick is booking until the 21st of November at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.


  1. Speaking of Greeks and insane finales, was this finale more or less insane than the Globe's Oresteia finale?

    1. In context, probably less - I mean after the couple of hours that have gone before, you just go "A Cyclops? Yeah, sure, why not?"