Review: Betwixt, Trafalgar Studios 2

“Is there a market for adult fairytales?”

It is often said that musicals are not written but rewritten and so it is with Betwixt, a musical written entirely by Ian McFarlane that has been gestating since 2008 with a run at the King’s Head and a West End concert. The show has since been further developed with new songs written for this new production which plays at the Trafalgar Studios 2 featuring a cast that can only be described as eclectic: a host of upcoming young stars are joined by a former Blue Peter presenter in Peter Duncan and the inimitable Ellen Greene, most famous for creating the role of Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors.

The show takes place in both modern day New York and an enchanted kingdom in a parallel dimension: Bailey is a writer suffering from writer’s block in whose flat a mysterious door has appeared, who gets a new flatmate Cooper, a resting actor, who has just found a key the very same day. When they enter, they find themselves in a fantasy world and thrust into taking part in a mission to fulfil a prophecy and help a princess. The programme advises “don’t ask too many questions – just go with it” when it comes to the plot, sage advice indeed as it isn’t always immediately clear what is going on or where we are, but there is an irrepressible amusing madness to proceedings as the pair encounter a host of wacky characters on their odyssey in this twisted fairytale.

And though it is uneven – often the case with writers directing their own shows – and with a score best described as serviceable than particularly distinctive, there is much to enjoy here. Steven Webb steals the show as flatmate Cooper, blessed with all the best gags but delivered with an impeccable comic timing and physical campery that almost makes one wish he were the lead character. Benedict Salter as the soul-searching Bailey tries his best to inject some charisma into a rather bland leading part, but again is overshadowed by Ashleigh Gray’s Miranda, a witty Bavarian disembodied head – trust me, it works! – her vocal dexterity utilised extremely well here.

Ellen Greene covers three roles, the Princess, the Nymph Queen and the Enchantress with varying degrees of wickedness but perhaps not quite enough vocal distinction between them: her delivery is so recognisably ‘Audrey’ at times which works excellently in places, especially the explanation of parallel dimensions, she was particularly fun as the seductive Nymph Queen and a tear-stained penultimate number was well-received. Peter Duncan also tripled up to amusing effect, his best moment being hamming it up as the Great Garbo, leader of a would-be acting troupe. The four-strong company – Will Hawksworth, Alyssa Nicol, Vicki Lee Taylor and Rob Wilshaw – supporting in a wide range of parts with great success, watch out for Hawksworth’s hilarious Joan the Mute, but they all sing well and deliver Grave Harrington’s choreography with great skill.

The 100-seater Trafalgar Studios 2 is a theatre that needs a careful touch, the seating ranges on three sides and so the direction needs to constantly take this into account so that the intimate space isn’t overloaded. From our seats on the side, the view was sadly obscured at crucial points with poor blocking, McFarlane not quite getting to grips with the need to open out the action: it is worth trying to get a seat in the end-on block if possible. This also affects the sound balance, George Dyer leading a band of three that threatened to overpower the (unmiked) singing a little too often. Intimacy can be unforgiving in this respect, but it does also allow us to see the finer details up close too – the brilliant luggage sticker “What happens in Narnia, stays in Narnia” and gain a real sense of connection with the performers. A mixed bag, but definitely one that entertains more than it frustrates.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: £2.50
Booking until 10th September

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