Workshops for new musicals are part of the fabric of the industry and allow creative teams the opportunity to see their work performed in front of an audience in order to prompt further development. This is usually done behind closed doors, with invited audiences of friends, industry executives and potential producers acting as the core audience in a relatively safe environment.
Producers of Bumblescratch, a new musical by Robert J Sherman extended this invite to the general public, with a one-night-only staged concert performance at the Adelphi Theatre, and whilst I feel in some way uncomfortable reviewing what is very much a work-in-progress, the scale of the production itself solicited feedback, and so I hope this is taken with an open mind.
If there was ever a greater argument to be had for the importance of musicals having an excellent book writer, it is this. Billed as librettist, composer and lyricist it's clear that for all Sherman's good intentions in creating the piece, he is wearing at least one hat too many. For the piece to progress this vitally needs a dramaturge and book writer on board to help shape the material and work on the narrative that is consistently muddled and in its current form, fundamentally flawed.
Described as a 'sung through musical comedy' – a form of musical I wasn't aware actually existed – (The Most Happy Fella?) the show ultimately hasn't found an overall tone with which it is comfortable being. From the marketing it would suggest that audiences are in for a jolly children's musical about a friendly rat, but the unintelligible plot, deeply religious overtones and bizarre allegory suggest otherwise, and the children in my immediate vicinity either didn't return after the interval, played on their phones or otherwise took a nap.
I found myself baffled by the narrative that just made little-to-no sense, and reading the extensive synopsis in the programme I'm still not sure that the storytelling on the stage actually matched what was written down. Cheese became a hallucinogenic drug, a whore seemed to be eaten by a child rat and a religious epiphany changed the fortunes and philosophy of the whole story. The audience are asked to suspend their belief and follow various plot threads that climax with the rats starting the Great Fire of London – the driving force of the narrative.
Humans as animals is a well-trodden trope in musical theatre, and whilst the likes of Stiles and Drewe have managed to consistently strike the balance between humour and sincerity in shows such as Honk! and Just So, here not enough is made of this convention and the fun is lost after the first few minutes. The over-reliance on recitative-like numbers weighted the piece down in its own sincerity, sucking any humour out of either character or situation. With a sharp book, and a couple of gags the action could be kept moving, but as it stands the numbers rolled into each other and proved too difficult to follow that after forty minutes I gave up trying. In the old days a producer would hire Neil Simon to come and insert 10 jokes per page in order to try and save a musical comedy, but I'm not quite sure even that would help this show in its current state.
Darren Day gave a solid performance as Bumblescratch, rarely gravitating away from centre stage and holding most of the material, something that urgently needs addressing. Spreading out the narrative and material throughout the supporting cast would help give some much needed structure to the piece, allowing it to appeal more perhaps to schools and amateur theatre groups who are always looking for original pieces to perform, and can provide an excellent revenue stream away from the West End. Day's cockney patter matches the material yet even he seemed laboured under his character's conflicting humour and sincerity. The opening of the second act felt like something out of Les Miserables – completely different in both style and tone to anything that had come previously, feeling like a brand new show.
Sherman has certainly inherited his father's genes in terms of toe-tappers and the show's greatest strength is a couple of lively songs that are superbly orchestrated and were wonderfully realised by an excellent on-stage orchestra. As a concert performance the cast work hard to give the material it's best chance of survival, and there's an excellent performance by youngster Ilan Galkoff who manages to steal the show before being attacked by a frying pan.
As a one-off performance there was a polished and committed delivery by both cast and orchestra to a charitable evening. Ultimately I'm not convinced that a West End Gala is quite the right setting for what is really a workshop of a new musical, and the producer's intentions going forward were not clear. Money had clearly been spent in recording the show with cameras throughout the auditorium, but I can only hope the event leads the production team back to the drawing board in terms of finding a way forward for this honourable, yet deeply flawed new musical.