“You’re stronger than this…”
Fringe musicals are notoriously fickle beasts: some adapt to the format extremely well to create moments of gloriously intense, theatrical wonder, others have their shortcomings cruelly exposed by the intimacy of such a small space. The Landor has been responsible for two examples of the former with their last two shows, The Hired Man and Ragtime being two of the best shows of the year so far, but their new incumbent, Stand Tall, falls somewhere inbetween. It is a new show, book and lyrics by Lee Wyatt-Buchan and music by Aldie and Sandy Chalmers – all newcomers to musical theatre – which was written to promote its persuasive anti-bullying message.
It does this by creating a modern-day version of the David and Goliath story – David here is a shepherd by day and a rock star by night who gets chosen by the mystical Black Sheep to become the new King but is forced into a winner-takes-all guitar battle by fierce rival Goliath – so just like the Bible really. Taking a rather gentle approach, we follow David as he learns to ‘stand tall’ to claim what is rightfully his, including his relationship with the high-maintenance Mia, but we also delve into Goliath’s troubled family history to discover why he’s such a bully. Resultantly, the story is pulled out wider from its anti-bullying focus and not always to the best effect as the humour prevents things from getting too dark or close to the heart of the emotions at play – the show consequently never really seems to take its subject seriously enough.
This is also due to the music and the way in which it is presented in Simon Grieff’s production. The story is set to an insistently contemporary rock score that Dean Austin’s band play well with energy, but it is over-amplified and poorly designed for the intimate space of the Landor – the performers use handheld mics throughout which not only inhibits their performance, but robs their vocals of some of their quality. More importantly, I found the Chalmers’ songs to be largely rather non-descript, again not cutting to the emotions needed to draw us further into the story nor pushing the narrative along with any urgency.
The saving grace of Stand Tall is the quality of the performances though as they work as best they can with this material. Keisha Amponsa Banson particularly shines with powerful vocals and acting that almost makes one forget the script and I enjoyed Natasha Barnes’ contrasting voice as the spoilt princess if not the poorly written character. Ryan O’Donnell’s David is likewise well sung and he makes for an engaging hero and whilst there’s nothing specifically wrong with Jack Shalloo’s Goliath, given the back-story that enables us to empathise somewhat with him, I couldn’t help but feel I’ve seen a similar cheeky-chappy performance just too many times from him now.
Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the two previous amazing shows at the Landor that spoke more to my sensibilities, indeed this is a show that has been written for young people and so uses a language, both musical and theatrical, with them in mind. I couldn’t help but feel though that Stand Tall plays it far too safe: with such a serious message at its core, the piece would be undoubtedly stronger for taking it more seriously from the outset – its impact would be considerably stronger for it.