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Metropolis The Musical: Ye Olde Rose & Crown Theatre

October 25, 2017

(Seen at the afternoon performance on 22nd October 2017).

Of all the famous West End flops of the 1980s and early 90s, I guess this is the one I remember best and was keenest to see again. After years of having just the double vinyl album – and then upgrading to CD – this is an unmissable chance to hear the score sung live once more.

They’ve made the odd update – noticeable ones like trimming the show to a tight 2 hours including interval, and minor but amusing ones – worker records are “downloaded” (unimaginable in 1989) rather than fetched.

What survives though, is the musical sound of the era, as well as the slavish following of the “Les Misérables” show structure that sunk many a “serious attempt at moving people and thus moving the cash from their pockets like Mackintosh.” A trick far harder than it looks, as many a destitute producer and investor soon found.

Aaron Clingham’s musical direction and 4 piece orchestra – himself on piano, Ashley Blasse on guitars, Ollie Davie on bass and Janette Williams on percussion produce an excellent rendering of the score, against which Tim McArthur directs a quite remarkable revival.

The opening scene manages to overcome the major fault of the original – making the show human. Replacing the (then outrageously expensive) original £1m machinery set that dwarfed the cast, actors bodies are used. Moving in choreographed piston and push / pull relay, it instantly scales the show to real struggle and creates the atmosphere to carry the entire first half.

And it really is a show of two halves. The first builds the story with decent speed and economy. Metropolis is powered by human muscle – huge number of slaves dying at subterranean generating machines. Above, the elite lead frivolous lives, and John Freeman (Gareth James – though I suspect really Ian Hislop, or his twin – pottering in highly self-satisfied manner) rules all.

Freeman’s son Steven (Rob Herron) is set to inherit, but is forbidden from knowing what goes on underground. He descends anyway, finding rebel Maria (Miya Alexandra) teaching workers’ children of the better life above. Naturally they fall in love, father hates it and gets evil inventor Dr. Warner (Kitty Whitelaw) to create a mechanised clone of Maria, one Futura, and dispose of the real thing.

By act two, Futura is sent down to fool the workers into submission. Instead there is rebellion and it all ends with the social order never being the same again. Pretty much.

The disparity between those three paragraphs of plot summary is the reason for the show’s troubles. The strongest songs and most interesting encounters are in the first half, with the second petering out and almost falling into a plot-hole before the rather charming end.

Theatrical problem solving aside, this is the key reason to catch this production. There is a genuineness about the entire cast, doing a show that clearly excites all of them, that is entirely irresistible.

Herron and Alexandra make the most of their solos and duets – Herron in particular has a flintiness suggesting leads further down the line. Slightly amazingly, this is Alexandra’s professional debut. While not of course Broadway veteran Kuhn in the original show, she provides a performance way in excess of her previous experience.

Among the rest of the cast, the show goes for a female scientist, with Whitelaw’s Warner cornering the market in “evil maniac inventors.” Not only in character – this lady “looks the part” too. Her programme biography notes extensive work in panto; if she is the “witch” at your local one, probably leave the kids at home… scary.

Mark Mackinnon (Groat) makes a hefty works foreman, with a strong voice to match. By contrast Alex Ely (Jeremiah) is a sly whisp, nicely creepy. There’s particualy good work from both him and Michael Levi (George – the confused and oppressed worker caught in the middle of love) with both defining the disparity at the centre of the show.

The original show featured real children. Here, talented Michael Larcombe, Laura Hyde, Tami Stone and Kieran Wynne manipulate pipe-armed puppets with broken-mouthed mask faces to heartbreaking effect. A credit to their abilities and those who trained them.

In other multiple recurring roles, there’s fluid ensemble work featuring strong dance and physical acting from Annabel Edwards, Shannon Kavanagh, Mikey Wooster, Natalie Jayne Hall, Tom Blackmore and Freya Tilly as they alternate between the showy dresses and vain dance of elitism, and the numbered boiler-suits of the oppressed.

Costume designer Joana Dias allows a certain wit to creep in with the number on one boiler-suit (you need to sit front row to spot it, obvious, but still fun) and just maybe another considerably more obscure Beatles reference, too. Dias does, however, make a rather curious choice in making her robot an inadvertent Woody Allen tribute (not spelling it out, as it’s a family blog) when the simple muslin shift of the original would more than suffice. Still, as with Justin Williams and Jonny Rust’s inventive set and video and Vittorio Verta’s intelligent lighting ideas, it all contributes to the production.

Not just for the benefit of nostalgic (of which half the audience seemed to be), this is a blueprint for any theatrical group, amateur or professional, and particularly school to follow, and hopefully help even more people re-discover this tuneful curio.

This was my first visit to this venue, and won’t be the last, as regulars around me assured me that this is the usual standard they receive at every performance here.

4 stars.

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