Moby Dick, Union Theatre, London ★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

If you choose to adapt a beloved novel into a musical, you want loyalty to the original to be an important factor. Unless, that is, if you are one of the unfortunate creatives behind Moby Dick! The Musical, and see your impression of fidelity fall about your ears as quickly as a post-Brexit pound.

Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden’s musical has already earned its place in the story of British theatre as one of the West End’s shortest runs, surviving a scant few months in the Piccadilly Theatre in the summer of 1992.

And to be honest, the conceit – of a St Trinian’s-style girls’ school staging a low-budget, ramshackle musical based on Herman Melville’s novel – may have had some appeal when staged in a venue more accustomed to expensive sets and costumes.

In Fringe theatre, though, there’s so little difference between this show’s intentionally shabby chic and other productions’ run-of-the-mill low budget design that Moby Dick needs to work substantially harder to sell its concept. What it actually does, though, is spend so long telling itself that it’s having a great time that it neglects to project the feeling to the audience.

That’s not to say there aren’t some great performances. Brenda Edwards is never less than committed in any role, and here her all-too-brief appearance as Captain Ahab’s doomed wife Esta is light years ahead of the rest of the cast.

Anton Stephans and Brenda Edwards. Photo: Pamela Raith. View more production photos

Her fellow X Factor alumnus, Anton Stephans, cannot hope to compete. Although his role as Ahab gives his impressive belting voice plenty of airings, his performance is generally hamstrung by the show-within-a-show concept of his character being the school’s headmistress who is then ‘dragging up’ as male to play the captain.

While Stephans provides the occasional flourish to indicate his character’s complexities, in the main the duality of his role detracts from the opportunity to revel in one of literature’s most complex and misunderstood characters, reducing it to the level of a pantomime dame.

Indeed, Moby Dick’s premise – that the show on stage is performed by a cast playing amateur school children, who are themselves playing roles – distracts from what is otherwise a potentially involving adaptation of the novel.

Rachel Anne Rayham’s Ishmael is an effective and endearing narrator/protagonist, and whenever the obsession with playing up school-based hijinks fades in Act II, Kaye and Longden’s affection for Melville’s source material, their songwriting abilities, and the cast’s ability to convince us that an upturned vaulting horse could be a whaling ship, offer glimpses of what should be possible.

Unfortunately, whenever the glimmer of an enjoyable show rises to the surface, it is quashed by the lumpen design and direction. The choreography seems wilfully slipshod and scrappy, which given director/choreographer Andrew Wright’s track record is especially disappointing.

Opening just a day after another classic American novel, Ragtime, had its musical successfully revived elsewhere in London, this production’s failings are thrown into sharp relief.

In the novel, Ahab’s obsession with the great white whale prove his undoing – and watching this mess of a show, one can’t help but feel that its producers risk going the same way.

View a gallery of Moby Dick production photos