Disaster!, Charing Cross Theatre, London ★★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

It is perhaps appropriate that, in the first of two performances of Disaster!, Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick’s homage to 1970s disaster movies, should suffer a disaster of its own – as actors Oliver Tompsett and Mark Anderson’s scene-setting duet caused the stage electricals to trip out.

Such an event only added to the fun of this charity production, which had all the hallmarks of being one of theatre’s comedy events of the year.

Disaster movies are no stranger to pastiche, of course, with Airplane! setting the mould for many a parody. But whereas that classic film was an adaptation of a serious movie, Zero Hour!Disaster! owes more to the ensemble pieces such as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, in which commercial hubris contributes to the disaster, and the people who end up trapped are picked off one by one in the quest to escape.

In that respect, it might sound like a match for Titanic, to which the Charing Cross Theatre recently played host. But not only is this a disaster movie played for laughs, it also acts as a pastiche of another genre – the jukebox musical.

We have all seen shows in which popular songs are shoehorned into a plot in the most barely appropriate of places. And so it is here, with a barrage of disco numbers popping up throughout Rudetsky and Plotnick’s story of The Barracuda, the world’s largest floating casino and discotheque.

From the sound-busting opening duet by Tompsett and Anderson of ‘Hot Stuff’ – a song which goes on to introduce all the leading characters, including Rudetsky’s doom-laden disaster expert and Simon Lipkin’s casino owner – onwards, a litany of classic songs are used and abused with gleeful abandon.

As well as Rudetsky’s Professor, another import from the US Broadway run of the show is Jennifer Simard, reprising her Tony-nominated role of that disaster staple, the guitar-playing nun. Simard’s hangdog delivery – as if MTV’s Daria had taken holy orders – is the perfect counterpoint to all the over-the-top situations being presented.

And singing ‘Torn Between Two Lovers’ as she struggles with her devotion to Jesus and the lure of the Hawaii Five-O-themed slot machines, that deadpan delivery enhances her musical solos.

Elsewhere in the cast, a number of familiar West End faces populates the cast. Lipkin in particular feels at home in the role of Tony, the lascivious casino owner, throughout demonstrating why he is one of the better comedy actors in West End musicals at the moment. His ad-libs in an attempt to get his former Guys and Dolls cast mate Tompsett to corpse are a definite highlight.

Sally Ann Triplett, as the wealthy older woman who is determined to help while fighting illness, turns another disaster movie trope into a performance which is both hilarious and touching.

Jodie Jacobs’ lounge singer helps showcase the talents of a performer who never disappoints. Her several numbers – from ‘Saturday Night’ to the inevitable ‘I Will Survive’ – are performed with aplomb. And yet Jacobs often risks being eclipsed by Bradley Riches as her character’s twin children, Ben and Lisa. Creating two distinct personalities, and frequently having to switch between them multiple times per scene, Riches is clearly a star in the making.

While these charity performances were initially billed as concert versions, similar to the concert versions that Rudetsky and his collaborators staged prior to its fully-fledged Broadway run, choreography by Ashley Nottingham and the full band (under musical director James Taylor) ensured that the production was a triumph.

With rumours flying around on Sunday that a fully-fledged London production may be in the works, this is one disaster that the West End sorely needs.

The performances of Disaster! on November 20 were in aid of The Make a Difference Trust, which works to building awareness of HIV/Aids and providing care, support and education in the UK and Sub-Saharan Africa. Donate today.