The Hard Boiled Egg and the Wasp (Fringe)
This is an odd musical. No, it is not merely odd, it is bizarre, bordering on the surreal. The title is a fitting summary of the enterprise, which becomes more and more dysfunctional and confusing as it wends its peculiar way to its conclusion. By the middle of the second half, I was beginning to wonder if I had taken leave of my senses, especially when one of the characters said, rather aptly, that she was “beginning to wonder if the madness of the environment is beginning to rub off on me”. I have no doubt that it was.
The show's central character is one Dan Leno (1860-1904) who was a hugely popular comedian who trod the boards of the musical halls throughout the latter part of the Victorian period. He was a regular performer in the annual Christmas pantomimes at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and made substantial sums of money and was active in charitable causes, such as the Grand Order of Water Rats – a charity which helped performers who had fallen on hard times. However, in the last 2 years of his life, he began to behave rather erratically, kept forgetting his lines and drank heavily. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1903 and had to be admitted to an asylum for the insane.
This show takes up almost at that point in Dan Leno's life, i.e. when he was admitted to hospital. At this institution, we meet several of the inmates, a doctor who uses a hammer and a pointed chisel to perform operations to the skull (presumably an early kind of frontal lobotomy) but only succeeds in NOT killing his patients in half of his operations. The hospital seems to be run by a matron-cum-nurse called Miss Cornthwaite who has short-cropped hair and has a more than motherly interest in an ex-patient turned nurse, Miss Proudfoot. We also meet Dan Leno's wife, Lydia, who has taken up with rival comic, George Robey, as well as a patient who has delusions of being various European monarchs and emperors. The whole show is narrated by a musical hall chairman.
Apparently, Dan Leno's music hall act mixed comic songs with surreal observations along with discussion about the commonplace and routine of everyday life. That may be a clue as to the nature of 'The Hard Boiled Egg & The Wasp!' in the sense that it may be attempting to follow Mr Leno's comic style. However, that was neither obvious nor clarified for us, so I am merely guessing. But the characters' revelations about their own lives become obsessively bizarre since they all seem based on their sexual preferences. Thus the matron is revealed not to be a lesbian as we had all assumed, but a man, and Dan Leno (of course?) turns out to be gay. And we learn of a soldier who had his 'vitals' blasted off in an explosion, and a butcher who made 'succulent sausages'. Hmmmm.
On the plus side, the cast are wholly professional and have been selected with care, work well together and do their best with what is a flacid and lacklustre script. The band – piano, drums, violin and cello – are all excellent musicians who do justice to the well-composed, catchy, and sometimes melodic musical numbers by Andy Street. No problems there.
I think the real problem with this show lies in the fact that Jonathan Kydd, who produced and directed the show, and wrote the book and lyrics, took on rather too much, and the contract was too large. It is a pity that, having had the good sense to surround himself with an admirable team of musicians and actors, he could not have gone the extra distance to hire a worthy director to (radically) rework the script and inject the plot with the necessary bite and humour.
There are times when a show is so bad that it actually becomes funnier – and more successful - as a result. That is not the case here, but it really isn't very funny, or entertaining. I could feel the inner twinges of nervous giggling starting to well-up at one point, but they soon faded. However, I detected the same mood of dissatisfaction among the other reviewers sitting near me, and could almost hear the sharpening of claws in readiness for a critical mauling. Very hard boiled!