Exposure the Musical, St James Theatre, London ★½

Reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

The term “photojournalism” covers anything from documenting wars, famines and other tragedies around the world, to long-lens exposés of celebrities and their foibles. This is the world in which Mike Dyer’s mess of a musical recycles the “temptation by the Devil” trope, in a musical in which the cast are regularly upstaged by a projected set that includes numerous photos of considerably more class than the work itself.

David Albury’s Jimmy, a young man who has followed in his late father’s footsteps as a photojournalist, returns to London to do a photoshoot for old school friend Pandora (Niamh Perry), now a pop star celebrity whose drink and drug dependency is all too predictable. And in the early stages of Act I there are signs of a decent musical structure at work, with a school-based sequence that choreographer Lindon Barr injects with a cool street dance vibe. In the early sequences, and indeed throughout, the dance work does its best to cover up for the fact that the book and the song lyrics rarely reach for anything other than the most trite, hackneyed cliché.

It is when Michael Greco appears as Pandora’s manipulative manager, Miles Mason, that the whole show really starts to come off the rails. Whereas everybody else is at least attempting to play Jimmy’s story straight, or as straight as a musical can be, Greco is an over-the-top, wild-eyed lunatic, as at home among the other characters as a pantomime dame would be in a Pinter play.

And then he starts to tempt Jimmy with the promise of more exposure for his documentary work, if the photographer will do some contemporary work for him: shooting an “iconic” image of Pandora, while also shooting images to represent the seven deadly sins. And as Act II progresses, the show mutates into one where the devilish Mason becomes the actual devil and any semblance of reality flies out of the window. It’s such a bizarre shift in tone, handled so clumsily, that it feels like the creative staff heard about Jerry Springer: The Opera from a friend over drinks once and have decided to try for something similar without really understanding how or why to make it work. Certainly regarding Greco’s performance as a poor man’s attempt at a David Bedella impersonation would explain a lot.

In such a ludicrous mess, Albury, Perry and Natalie Anderson as Tara, the Irish homeless girl (complete with fiddle-based introduction) who becomes Jimmy’s girlfriend, do their best to rise above the material they have been given. Never less than committing fully, all three give sterling vocal performances that give heft to Dyer’s songs (co-written with a bewildering array of collaborators who are acknowledged in the programme’s small print) that the material barely deserves.

The set – a series of white moving panels, upon which are projected a variety of classic photos (Getty Images getting an above-the-title credit) and London scenes – coupled with Barr’s choreography and a generally strong ensemble at least ensure that this is a show that is pleasant to look at. But there is precious little else to recommend it, unless the thought of David Albury spending so much of a show shirtless is as appealing to you as it seems to be to the production team.

A conversation between director Phil Wilmott and Mike Dyer, as printed in the programme, reveals that the original draft of Exposure was three times the length as the version being staged here. One can only shudder at the thought of the four hours of material that was discarded, going on the poor show that has made it to the stage.