Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:
Greek mythology is a fertile area for modern day storytelling: its larger-than-life tales of heroes, villains and quests are almost ready-made for musical theatre, a genre that freely embraces the grand gesture.
Sam Cassidy’s new musical 27 rummages freely in the Greek mythology bran tub, combining tales of Orpheus in the Underworld, the tasks of Heracles, Jason and the Argonauts and more, in a tale set in the world of a modern rock band. It’s perhaps no surprise that, in a show that seems determined to work against itself at every turn, it’s the mythology-based elements that survive the strongest.
The show takes its name from a more modern myth, the suggestion that a disproportionate number of rock stars have died at the age of 27, with the likes of Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and others (we’ll skip over the programme notes’ mention of one ‘Janice’ [sic] Joplin) cited for the existence of a so-called ‘27 Club’.
Statistical analysis has demonstrated no such significance, so it’s perhaps just as well that the musical itself makes no explicit reference to it, save for lead character Jimmy (Greg Oliver) being referred to as 23 prior to a jump in time of four years.
The premise of Cassidy’s musical centres around a three-piece rock band, the Argonauts, put together by drummer Jason (Ryan Gibb), a gentle man who finds himself frustrated that Oliver’s lead singer Jimmy (who renames himself ‘Orpheus’) is already becoming the public face of the group.
Along with the mild-mannered Max (Jack Donnelly, familiar with the butchery of mythology from his time on BBC1 fantasy series Atlantis), the trio find nothing but doors slammed in their faces – until Orpheus’ encounter with the mysterious ‘Ms. M’ (Lucy Martin) leads him to a demonic record boss (Ryan Molloy). All this is overseen by a trio of women who may or may not be the Fates of Greek legend, the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth and possibly both.
Molloy’s take on his character is a curious one – his giggling charisma putting one in mind of Batman’s Joker crossed with an evil leprechaun – but it certainly gives the over-earnest first half some much needed energy.
Elsewhere, the counterpoint to Orpheus’ self-destructive drug taking is meant to be his long term girlfriend Amy – but unfortunately Cassie Compton, despite having one of the strongest voices in the cast, is saddled with a character that is woefully underwritten.
Too often she is left standing to one side while the bandmates argue, treating her supposedly strong moral character as a possession to be fought over. Her love duet with Oliver – which comes too soon in the show for the audience to be invested in their relationship – starts out as a strong ballad, before succumbing to the ear-splitting guitar solo work that dominates and disrupts too many of the show’s musical numbers.
Her final number, another strong ballad, demonstrates Compton’s abilities to such an impressive extent that it is criminal that her character’s exit from the show is so fumbled, and that she is entirely absent from the singing performers within the show’s Act II.
The aforementioned screeching solo electric guitar also contributes to a lack of clarity for the purpose of the three Fates. Maisey Bawden, Eloise Davies and Jodie Jacobs have the strongest of voices, but their lyrics are often inaudible over the band, rendering their already nebulous role in the piece even harder to discern.
Between songs, the book is audible – but especially in Act I, the dialogue is dominated by moribund cliché. In a show that is co-directed by Arlene Phillips, one would expect technically demanding choreography – and while the choreographic credits belong to Ryan-Lee Seagar and Lucy Martin, the dancing is classic Phillips: frenetic, spandex-clad and generally devoid of emotion.
Despite the loss of Compton in Act II, the post-interval action as Orpheus sets out on a quest to win Amy back brings with it a definite uptick in book quality. There are shafts of humour, subverting the mythological allegories in ways that feel at odds with the over-earnest Act I.
Oliver too, who starts out as the least interesting of the three Argonauts, benefits from the script’s change in tone. But the conclusion of his quest leaves a rather sour taste in the mouth, Cassidy’s script romanticising the death by drug overdose that has occurred far too often in the rock music world.
After a dramatic crescendo which musically feels like the show’s conclusion, a more subdued epilogue seeks to de-glamourise the drug death which has just been fêted. And while it feels tacked on, it does at least leave the audience with a thoughtful, hummable tune.
It is such a shame that Cassidy’s vision of a new musical scuppers itself so badly throughout. There are glimmers of good songs, and the cast includes some of London theatre’s best musical voices. But for people interested in doomed rock stars and mythological mash-ups, there will be more satisfaction from watching the documentary Amy and reading Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel, The Sandman.
Continues at the Cockpit Theatre until October 22. thecockpit.org.uk