This is Moby Dick, but not as you remember it. The 25th Anniversary production of Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden’s musical flop Moby Dick! The Musical has arrived at the Union Theatre and bares almost no resemblance to the novel I was lovingly read as a child. But the production’s innuendo-laden artwork and the musical’s risqué reputation had already prepared me for the fact that this was not going to be a traditional retelling of Herman Melville’s classic novel. Set at St. Godley’s Academy for Young Ladies, the premise is that these naughty school girls and their lush of a headmistress are going to stage a musical version of Moby Dick, composed by one of the students - a show within a show.
But therein lies the problem – the concept is so poorly set up in Kaye and Longden’s book that you never really know where you are; before truly acquainted with the fictional characters of St. Godley’s Academy, you’re introduced to the fictional characters of Moby Dick in a very under-rehearsed school production, the type that parents attend adoringly whilst wondering what they did to deserve such purgatory. Kaye and Longden’s abridged and muddled retelling of the much-loved classic is made up of jokes that outstay their welcome and tedious spoofing of other musicals, including several of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s successful productions (all very tongue-in-cheek when it was Sir Cameron who produced the original production of Moby Dick! The Musical 25 years ago). But the show is held together by a series of perfectly pleasant songs that attempt to convey some sort of plot, and never fail to entertain – I found myself bopping along on several occasions, though wouldn’t be able to sing you a single tune now.
The under-rehearsed school production has quite obviously been rehearsed to within an inch of its life in Andrew Wright’s animated production. Directed and choreographed by Wright, he keeps things ticking along nicely in the first act, with very creative staging and visual gags. Proceedings wear thin in the second act, though not through the fault of his work. He has created some extremely energetic choreography for this production, and it is constant – there is barely a beat in the practically sung-through show that hasn’t been musically staged.
But that’s a good thing – shortcomings can be masked by theatrical finesse, and Wright has assembled a uniformly excellent cast to perform his work – they are working their socks off up there, and you can see it. They do their absolute best with the material they have been given, and their enthusiasm is so earnest that you can’t help but root for them. The standard of singing throughout is first-rate, with a special shout-out to Rachel Anne Raynham as Ishmael and Laura Mansell as Starbuck. Anton Stephans as St. Godley’s headmistress and Moby Dick’s Ahab is a hoot, and Brenda Edwards’ Esta nearly brings the theatre down with her vocal prowess. Lee Freeman and his band are also excellent, never drowning out the cast – an all too regular occurrence at these smaller venues.
Even with the shortcomings of the madcap material, this isn’t an unpleasant evening by any means. It just isn’t as funny as it so desperately wants to be, and it certainly isn’t clever. But if you can buy into how bonkers it is, you’ll have a laugh. It’s enjoyably stupid.