Jest End, Waterloo East Theatre, London ★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

Musical parody revue Jest End likes to think of itself as London’s answer to Forbidden Broadway, the perennial New York comedy show which has had several successful excursions over here. And there’s an element of truth to that – certainly both shows revel in picking up on theatreland’s obsession with musicals and the people who perform in them. But whereas the Manhattan original can be said to kill with kindness in its affectionate parodies, there’s an altogether harder edge to Jest End at times, and that doesn’t always work in the show’s favour.

Starting with a parody of The Lion King certainly begins this year’s production off on a high, with composer and director Garry Lake layering many different lyrics on top of each other to produce a rousingly cynical interpretation of ‘The Circle of Life’.

That it is renamed ‘The Circle is Shite’ also gives a clue to Jest End’s other obsession: with rather crude language and an adolescent obsession with sex that often seems used to cover over any dips in Lake’s ingenuity.

And that is a shame, because when it hits the target, Lake’s eye for satire can produce some genuine belly laughs. Tyrone Huntley’s utter dominance as Judas in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s Jesus Christ Superstar is a case in point, Daniel Buckley providing one of many memorable performances in a number which also skewers the show’s titular star, Declan Bennett, and Drew McOnie’s choreography in a manner which is less aggressively dismissive than many other numbers, and all the better for it.

The same cannot be said for a pop at Gary Barlow’s The Girls, his musical adaptation of Calendar Girls. Dressed as a sunflower, Adam Bailey captures the general lack of public excitement and marries it with Barlow’s own hangdog persona, but it’s a number which uncharacteristically outstays its welcome.

Its ending, involving the performer putting a gun to his own head, feels like an admission of defeat by the writer – and that the same technique is used to end a lukewarm skit about Sarah Harding’s performance in Ghost the Musical feels even lazier.

This run of Jest End features some current and new works. An In The Heights parody just about comes off, although the jokes about it sharing a theatre with The Railway Children don’t quite land, and one can imagine this segment will be retired pretty quickly once the current production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical closes in January.

The forthcoming arrival of Miranda’s newer, greater work in the form of Hamilton receives a couple of treatments, both focusing on the issues around casting the show in the UK.

Buckley’s version of Cameron Mackintosh, an effete kilted rapper, is fun, but the better treatment comes from an Act II adaptation of ‘Alexander Hamilton’, reworked as ‘Any Chance to Ham It Up’.

It’s a great attempt to mimic Miranda’s style, down to the multiple internal rhymes he uses in his raps. An all-white cast grumbling about their chances of being cast feels at odds with the real world issues surrounding casting diversity, though.

And the issue of casting does tend to overshadow much of the show. Frequent references to celebrity casting and TV talent shows pervade. Indeed, Jemma Alexander has three solos to that effect: an audition number that doesn’t quite work in Act I is reprised to no benefit in Act II, detracting from a much better song based on Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years, a musical which handles the audition room much better.

All three are saved by Alexander’s physical comedy, but it feels like an itch which is suffering from being over-scratched.

If anything, the show’s fourth performer Bronte Barbe (a former contestant on BBC talent show Over the Rainbow) disproves such a premise, showing that such contestants succeed not on name recognition alone, but require talent to succeed. Barbe is a naturally funny and sweet performer, her Ariel pleading for a chance for The Little Mermaid to come to the West End being her best showcase.

Some segments could do with being retired – a Billy Elliot segment and a version of Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe feel particularly long in the tooth.

But the show concludes with perhaps the show’s best new number, a pastiche of Stiles and Drewe’s Half a Sixpence revival. There’s still too many juvenile sex obsessions – the brilliance of the ‘Banjo Twang Gallop’ version of ‘Flash Bang Wallop’ is somewhat ruined by repeated references to fumblings between ensemble members and threesomes that bring nothing to the parody – but it concludes the show with a number that leaves one feeling the best of this show.

It’s no Forbidden Broadway, that’s true, but Jest End’s continued presence on the Fringe is to be welcomed.

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