Spitting Image used to portray Paul McCartney snatching at banal snippets from conversations with his wife Linda and trying to turn them into hit songs. The same approach seems to be behind many of the new musicals that appeared in our mid-range theatres pre-lockdown, and the ones now being arduously reformatted for live-streaming.
I salute the determination of the King’s Head and Southwark Playhouse, and director Charlotte Westenra, for devising a workable online production of this inoffensive but flimsy family show, shot on the Southwark stage. I just wonder if, in working out how they could stage it, the production team ever asked themselves if they really should.
Writer Richard Hough and composer Ben Morales Frost take as their inspiration JW von Goethe’s poem, itself adapted from a folk tale, and now best known as the basis for the orchestral routine featuring Mickey Mouse and an army of marching brooms in Disney’s Fantasia.
The poem is 14 stanzas long and the Mickey segment runs a little over ten minutes. To fill two hours of stage/screen time, Hough and Frost pad out the skeleton of the morality tale into a story of family strife and emotional growth, with an ecological message pasted on top for good measure. The songs are pleasant but unremarkable with lyrics – “spellbound, it’s like a fairground” – that sound as if they were settled upon at the last minute.
In the village of Midgard, which is vaguely Nordic and 19th century, energy comes from the aurora borealis, harvested somehow or other by the cartoonish capitalist Lydecker. The local sorcerer-cum-doctor Gottel (David Thaxton) warns of disaster. Gottel is a widower, gruff with his daughter Eva (Mary Moore) because she reminds him of his dead wife. So Eva tries to impress him by turning her own growing magical powers on Lydecker’s refinery, and accidentally conjures up an army of eco-terrorist cleaning utensils.
The character arcs - regret and redemption for Gottel, self-affirmation for Eva – are entirely predictable but the narrative is blurry and vague. One moment characters are desperate to save the town from angry bits of wood and bristle, the next they are sitting down to biscuits. A two-dimensional suitor is supplied for Eva purely because her love songs need a target. The script does spring one surprise, and one very good joke occasioned by Gottel’s ability to blend medicine and spells: “Magician, heal theyself.” Thaxton, and Dawn Hope as Lydecker’s mother, give the most convincing vocal performances: Moore is charming but hits occasionally flat.
Westenra’s production achieves one great visual coup, when the dancing brooms are supplanted by a vast, expressive, sculptural face. But it’s much harder to suspend disbelief at the manipulation of props in a livestream than in a theatre. The magic just isn’t there.
Until 14 March, www.stream.theatre