Tuesday 18 June 2024

Theatre review: Babies

The Other Palace has managed to combine its remit to discover new British musicals with the high school musicals that have been its bread and butter in recent years: Martha Geelan (book) and Jack Godfrey's (music & lyrics) Babies isn't even an adaptation of an existing property, although its premise has been a mainstay of teen TV drama since even I was a teenager: Back then it would most likely have been an egg that each of a class full of kids would have been given to look after as if it was a baby; here Year 11 are delivered a shipment of hi-tech Japanese dolls that cry like real infants and need feeding and care. The class have to look after them for a week while juggling all their usual schoolwork, a cautionary project meant to put them off becoming single teen parents for real, as the entirety of the year above them seem to have done.

The story primarily revolves around Leah (Zoë Athena,) considered something of a loser who's the most likely to get knocked up for real, but who excels in this project by proving a natural at caring for the baby - making up for her troubled relationship with her own mother. Hyper-competitive Jasmine (understudy Rowan Macpherson) can't bear to be shown up by someone she looks down on, and decides to rig the contest in her favour. Even though it's not meant to be a contest.

Elsewhere aspiring influencer Becky (Jaina Brock-Patel) and her boyfriend Ben (Max Mulrenan) decide to raise their babies together as a power couple, resident mystery man Jacob (Nathan Johnston) has to share parenting duties with openly gay Toby (Bradley Riches) and people-pleaser Lulu (Lucy Carter) tries to use the project to make friends with the popular Becky.

Geelan also directs a fun evening full of relentless energy: The young cast are for the most part decent rather than spectacular singers but that's fine for the demands of the songs, which they deliver in a constant flurry of movement around the stage and scrambling up and down the climbing frames that form the main element of Jasmine Swan's design (choreography by Alexzandra Sarmiento.) The songs themselves are witty and enjoyable, although by the third consecutive song basically explaining the premise I was impatient for them to actually start to move a story forward. They even contain a couple of earworms - granted, "Baby Baby Baby" gets a few reprises but they resulted in it being stuck in my head on the way home; elsewhere "Hot Dad" is very One Direction, which I guess makes sense for a band these kids would have grown up listening to.

The gag about how incredibly seriously the teens take this fake parenthood is well-sustained, but while Geelan's lines are witty the show's weakest on story and character: There's an admirable ambition to make this a genuine ensemble piece but it leaves most of the characters underdeveloped. And while it's lovely that we're seeing a generation of storytellers for whom including LGBTQ+ elements goes without saying, there's definitely something rote in the way Toby and Jacob get together, while Grace (Viola Maisey) questioning her sexuality over trans boy Alex (Ashley Goh) is dealt with in an especially perfunctory way.

Still, it's a lot of fun, and Godfrey & Geelan show good potential to throw their hat into the ring with Marlow & Moss, Tim Gilvin, Ben Adams, Compton & Clark, Barne & Buchan and everyone else who's currently vying to be the next UK superstars of musical theatre. They certainly know their way around a witty line, and can combine functional songs with the odd showstopper, which is half the battle - if they can tighten up their storytelling they could be a force to be reckoned with.

Babies by Jack Godfrey and Martha Geelan is booking until the 14th of July at The Other Palace.

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Matt Crockett.

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