The Southwark Playhouse continue their trend of presenting UK premieres of Broadway musicals that didn't quite make the commercial trip over the Atlantic to land in the West End with this surprise 2007 'hit' adapted from the Razzie-nominated film of the same name starring Olivia Newton John. The original charm of the musical was partly contextual - landing on Broadway with its tongue firmly in its cheek poking fun at more sincere screen-to-stage adaptations and juke box musicals. In London it continues to be pure escapism, but feels more like pre-drinks you'd enjoy ahead of a better party elsewhere.
Much of this tone survives in the Southwark production, reduced in size and scale but replicated in almost every other way, right down to the bubble machines. An interval has been added (to its detriment) and Olivia Newton John's "Physical" has been shoe-horned in as a second act opener in an attempt to keep the hits coming.
It's hard to resist the charm and energy of the production, but those looking for a serious night of theatre will be sorely disappointed. The show works best when you let yourself be won over by the infectious energy, bubble-gum score and constantly surprising production values, which are surprisingly high and match previous musicals at the same venue. After a while however it all gets rather exhausting, and you leave with a sugar-rush type headache craving a lie down in a dark room. The self mocking humour wears thin approximately three minutes into the first act and your return diminishes as the proverbial Pegasus continues to be flogged right up to its last gasping breath.
That said, there is more potential in Douglas Carter Beane's book to raise the satire levels, with some laugh-out-loud lines landing against other jokes recycled from Christmas crackers. Considering the intended primary audience ("It's like children's theatre for 40 year old gay men"), you can't help but wish for the writing to be consistently sharper. Whilst he handles the Greek Mythology and its comic potential considerably well, his subplot which relies heavily on flashbacks falls like a bad angel into the River Styx, providing multiple check-your-watch scenes, despite the consistency of the performances.
The score suffers by making the audience wait for the title track, which is both its ace of clubs but also its Achilles heel. There's a serious lack of substance to the 80s pop-rock infused score until the finale, but there's plenty of smoke and mirrors to distract you from that very fact at every turn.
As you'd expect, it's the musical numbers that provide the highlights, and the staging works best when more people are on stage to skate, tumble, cartwheel and jete across the thrust allowing you to be distracted from both motivation and action. There's a lot of ineffectual blocking that fundamentally doesn't work in the thrust set up - having characters continually stand horizontally side by side rather than using the diagonals - which blocks a lot of the action for two thirds of the audience. Nathan M Wright's choreography on the other hand solves this problem and uses the size and shape of the roller-disco set playing space to full effect, keeping it moving and allowing the whole room to feel involved.
The tone is consistently met by all performers which results in the show achieving its ultimate goal, from the faux Australian accents to the casual wink and nods about its audience demographic. Carly Anderson leads the charge as Kira/Clio, mastering roller skates like a pro and managing to walk the fine line between parody and pastiche which in turn allows the whole production to teeter on the same delicate thread. Stand out cameos from Alison Jiear and Lizzy Connolly propel the humour without chewing the scenery, acting as support rather than pulling focus.
As a cult show it doesn't ever reach the levels of 'Rocky Horror' or 'Little Shop of Horrors', but its effervescent charm, self referential humour and finely judged performances make it a thoroughly unique musical albeit one, like any high, that you'll forget almost instantly once the initial rush has worn off.