There are times, unfortunately, when one has to own up to ignorance. I'm afraid that I had never heard of 'The Fantasticks' before I started my research for this show. Just how I have managed to overlook what is purported to be the world's longest running musical, I have no idea. Still, I was in good company as a colleague who was sitting next to me at the show hadn't heard of it either. Sad, some may well say, but enough of confessions.
The last time this show was in the West End was back in 1961, but it only ran for a month. In the USA it has been running more or less continuously since 1960, and there have been thousands of productions of 'The Fantasticks' all over the globe, including numerous school and amateur versions.
'The Fantasticks' is an allegorical piece. Basically that means you're not supposed to take the story literally, but to see in it some general truth or hidden meaning. The plot revolves around a boy and girl who live next door to each other. Their fathers know only too well that if you tell children not to do something they go ahead and do it anyway. So, they build a wall between their houses to stop the children falling in love, but then they do anyway. After that, the plot gets a bit cloudy. The youngsters drift apart and go their separate ways for a while and experience 'the real world' which has a few nasty surprises in store.
Curiously, the show sports an incredibly famous song - Try To Remember – a melodic and evocative tune which has been covered by artists too numerous to mention. And there's much to enjoy in the music department. The songs are well crafted, tuneful and evocative, and are enhanced by the dominant combination of cello and harp in the ranks of the small but well-directed orchestra.
The casting is pretty much spot on. The actors seem to be enjoying themselves, give it their best shot and are well-directed by Amon Miyamoto. Luke Brady as Matt and Lorna Want as Luisa are youthfully charming, energetic and exuberant. Clive Rowe and David Burt are the odd-ball, vegetable-growing fathers. Carl Au is the balletic Mute who endlessly sprinkles glitter dust and snow everywhere. Hadley Fraser is the capable, and authoritative Narrator who doubles as the dastardly El Gallo to orchestrate Luisa's abduction. And Paul Hunter bangs his drum and rattles assorted kitchen implements as the clown of the show, Mortimer. But Edward Petherbridge steals the show as the The Old Actor, Henry, who's not only rather doddery on his feet, but delivers an out-dated declamatory style of Shakespearian acting which, though well past its sell-by date, is nonetheless funny and engaging.
Acting and music aside, I'm sure you're dying to know whether it's any good. In a way, so am I because I'm torn between two points of view. First, it does have a certain charm and allure. It's interesting in a nostalgic, naïve, homely sort of way. On the other hand, the story is bonkers and I found myself totally lost in the second half which comes a poor second to the first and does almost nothing to advance the plot or help us understand the big message – if there is one. There are some funny moments – watch out in particular for the first appearance of Henry and Mortimer - but the humour isn't consistent. The songs are generally good, and Try To Remember is very well sung by Hadley Fraser. On the other hand, it's too sweet and syrupy for my taste, and it has a dated, spartan feel which is accentuated by the bleak set. It might be something you may want to take the kids to see, but in comparison to other musicals on offer in the West End there might not be much here to tempt your technology-loving darlings. Times have certainly changed since 1960, and we all expect rather more bang for our bucks.
"Since by the interval the plot has been virtually resolved and we've had the two best songs (Try to Remember, and Soon it's Gonna Rain), the second half strains hard to excite our curiosity...What irks one about the show is its dimpled, ingratiating cuteness."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Most of the humour is feeble, and while the performances are serviceable...it’s impossible to redeem the material...This is one to forget."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"No amount of talent can redeem this terrible show."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"Yes, it occasionally puts the 'grate' in ingratiating. Yes, at two-and-half hours, it begins to outstay its welcome. But as an open-hearted antidote to soulless, big-budget hi-tech, The Fantasticks continues to prove that small can be quite fetching."
Paul Taylor for The Independent