Alexandre Dumas’ story of ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ is one that continues to intrigue and fascinate, several centuries after its first appearance. The idea of a man imprisoned by Louis XIV for an unknown crime or reason, and his identity kept secret by encapsulating his head in a mask of iron, stirs all the conspiracy imaginings which most of us wretched humans seem to harbour, and relish.
On the face of it then, this production had a lot going for it before even seeing the light of day in a rehearsal studio - a great story waiting to be aired once again on the London stage, and a significant cast including Sheila Ferguson (her of ‘Three Degrees’ fame and with many musical credits behind her), together with Robert Fardell and Mark McKerracher (both of whom have considerable experience in musical theatre). So, the scene was set for an intriguing and memorable show. However, the reality proved exactly the opposite. This musical production is quite simply, boring. And the problem lies entirely with the storyline and, indeed the very concept.
The people behind “Behind The Iron Mask’ are husband and wife writing team Melinda Walker and Colin Scott, and composer and lyricist John Robinson. Walker and Scott have hijacked Dumas’ story, and inserted a rather strange and pointless twist. Into the intimate, fascinating and peculiar relationship between the prisoner and his jailer, Scott and Walker have contrived a meeting between the jailer and a gypsy (well, she starts off by saying she’s not a gypsy, so we’re never sure whether she really is or not, although she certainly tried to dance like one). Hoping to impress the ‘gypsy’ and lure her to his bed, the jailer takes her to see his ‘secret’ – the prisoner whom he perpetually guards. Little does the gypsy know that anyone who learns of the prisoner’s existence is subject to immediate execution (along with the jailer and the prisoner). Of course it turns out alright in the end, because the prisoner and the gypsy fall in love, the jailer is a nice guy who wouldn’t really harm a fly, and the gypsy is released into the world clutching a handful of the prisoner’s pearls. And they all lived happily ever after … zzzzzzzzzzz. Yes, it really is that lamentable. One of the songs is entitled ‘Who’s The Prisoner Here?’ – which rather echoed my own sentiments, because much of the time, it seemed to me it was those of us unfortunate enough to be in front of the curtain.
To create a successful show with a cast of just 3 and a 2-hour running time really means it’s essential to have an incredibly powerful story, as well as great dialogue and excellent musical numbers. But ‘Behind The Iron Mask’ has none of these. In fact I’m surprised that anyone thought it could ever make the grade in this respect. It’s one of the poorest stories I’ve encountered for some time, and the songs sound for the most part as though they’ve been cobbled together by a third rate, burnt-out music teacher in his spare time, inspired by his Lloyd-Webber collection. Quality theatre this most certainly is not.
Playing to a half-empty house, the cast did their professional duty, but the acting is more ‘automatic’ than spirited, or engaging. But then it’s hard for anyone to make something of a situation and script as dire as this. With sudden, inexplicable changes in mood, gear shifts or attitudes, the 3 characters have to shamble through to the dreary conclusion with only each other for support. Sheila Ferguson has a stunning voice, but unfortunately, is simply not right for the part. And her attempts at gypsy dancing were more akin to that of a geriatric gypsy than to a young, vivacious one that she’s meant to be.
Both Robert Fardell as the prisoner and Mark Kerratcher as the jailer, have good singing voices, but neither could mask the fact that the material just wasn’t up to scratch. There are a couple of catchy tunes, but the rest are eminently forgettable - one being aptly entitled ‘Antiphonal Madness’, which more or less sums up the entire libretto and score.
In addition to battling through a ludicrous script, Robert Fardell also has to endure the ignominy of wearing a mask that resembles a cross between a cabbage patch doll and a 1960s Dr Who villain from planet Zog, presumably crafted by a blind sheep. If Louis the XIVth were still alive today, I’m sure he would regret not having made a mask for his prisoner exactly like the one which Fardell has been lumbered with. It’s the best, and only joke in the show!
At the end of the performance, a head popped out of the orchestra pit to receive some acclamation. Presumably this person was the programmer who had been slaving away in the bowels of the earth bashing out bits and bytes to concoct the musical accompaniment on some second-hand PC or other. In fact he needn’t have bothered, because the music sounded totally ‘canned’, and completely lacking in any kind of vibrancy whatsoever.
In marked contrast to other musicals I’ve seen recently, the mood in the house was subdued to put it midly. One might have thought we were all in line to have several teeth pulled, rather than to witness a West End musical debut. No one seemed to have any sense of excitement or anticipation – most of the audience (to quote Mark Twain) appeared to be ‘fading away to a better land’. And there seemed to be rather more vacant seats after the interval than before it, if my rough head count is reliable - some of the ‘prisoners’ had obviously taken flight! What little applause was forthcoming seemed to be polite or sympathetic, rather than emanating from any kind of real enthusiasm or appreciation.
My judgement, of course, is a personal one, and others may not see this musical entirely the same way – but I’d be surprised. I remember seeing ‘The Far Pavilions’ and thinking it would close within a couple of weeks – it’s still going. But there’s a big difference between ‘Far Pavilions’ and ‘Behind The Iron Mask’. When I saw the former, it was greeted with sincere enthusiasm from the audience, and to give it its due, it had a strong storyline. But with ‘Behind The Iron Mask’, it certainly appeared to me that the rest of the audience felt exactly the same way as I did – they couldn’t wait to get out!
What the popular press had to say.....
FIONA MOUNTFORD for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "..wretchedly overamplified production and the actors seem to have decided to conserve energy by expressing no emotion whatsoever in speech or song.." PAUL TAYLOR for THE INDEPENDENT says, "There were weird, vacant moments when it seemed to run completely out of steam, as though, like its audience, it was losing the will to live." LYNN GARDNER for THE GUARDIAN says, "Nobody comes out of this with any real credit, although Ferguson does at least inject some energy into her musical numbers." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The music sometimes has a pleasant Lloyd-Webbery lilt, but the lyrics are mostly vile and the sudden twists of behaviour would take platoons of psychologists to unravel." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It's so bad that it is merely unendurable.There's no insane flourish to its mediocrity, no sublimity to its awfulness. It is just relentlessly, agonisingly third-rate." "
Photo of outside theatre by Peter Brown