“You used me, you were lying, you are only here for spying”
The Grimeborn Festival is now in its sixth year of providing a very East London take on opera at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston, but wrapping up the programme this year is a new piece of musical theatre – Thirteen Days by Alexander S Bermange. A rather ambitious piece of work set around the Cuban Missile Crisis, not only does it tell the story of the brinkmanship between the three leaders of Kennedy, Khrushchev and Castro, it dramatizes the conflict in miniature in the form of a love triangle between a Cuban, a Soviet and an American, and thirdly also attempts to portray how the events affected the populations of each country.
In painting his canvas so broad, Bermange – in charge of book, music and lyrics here – sets up a considerable challenge for himself, one which is not helped by his writing style. He is very much of the old-school British musical theatre school which stands him in good stead for the second of the above strands, the intimate love story of the Cuban student engaged to a Soviet engineer but whose head is turned by an American visitor whose intentions are, initially at least, less than honourable. The stirring balladry that comes out of songs like ‘Anyone But You’ and ‘More Than A Memory’ feels ready to take up residence on a West End stage, as does the storming Act One finale – the mark of many a good musical past.
But Bermange is less successful elsewhere. The truth is that it is undeniably difficult to convey the complexities of geopolitics in rhyming couplets – “this is not worth dying for, hold us back from nuclear war” – especially with an additional layer of characterisation here which means the internal thought processes of each of the leaders is laid bare. But it is clumsily handled, an uneasy mixture of narrative-propelling facts and faux-dramatic pondering, that rarely achieves the necessary level of tension to indicate how serious the threat of nuclear war truly was.
And the third level, documenting the feeling of the peoples of each country, too often feels like a distraction. Drawing on the diverse influences from these regions dilutes the identity of Bermange’s writing and at its worst, results in some laboured, old-fashioned national stereotyping as in ‘Another Day in Havana’, the choreographical choices here simply pointing this up even more. Focusing on the Cuban people – that is where the show is mainly set after all – would perhaps have been wiser and when Bermange does this, free from trying to impose Latin spirit on them as in the quietly moving ‘Castro Says…’, it really works.
More importantly, it introduces too many new perspectives into an already crowded narrative – the second half barely has time to get round the three lovers and the three leaders, before visiting the three nations and ultimately, I didn’t think the show really benefitted from it, especially as it ends up just stopping rather than resolving with any real dramatic satisfaction.
Amongst the cast, Grant Neal’s square-jawed American captivated with a strong vocal performance, Melissa Moore’s characterful Cuban student deftly caught the turmoil of being pulled between two lovers and Richard de Winter’s fine voice, though under-utilised, made a strong impression as Castro. And one could not criticise the valiant efforts of the company, working in the bare-bones staging of the Arcola Tent. Perhaps Matthew Gould’s production could have done a little more to delineate the different strands, and the different groupings within them – a larger production will clearly manage this, though any clarity that could be given as to what actually transpired in the epilogue would be welcomed.
Considering that so much of new musical theatre writing exists in a post-Sondheim world, headed by the likes of Jason Robert Brown, it is something of a surprise to find a composer who is eschewing that tradition. In Thirteen Days, Alexander S Bermange shows promise in the path that he is pursuing, but should be a little more unafraid to adopt modern sensibilities alongside it to avoid the dated feel that sometimes comes across. And with some judicious pruning of the book to create less cluttered, stronger lines of story, one can well imagine a future for this musical.