“We’re sorry that there wasn’t much plot”
I cannot lie to you, when I came out of Geek! A New Musical at the Tristan Bates, I thought (and tweeted) that it was one of the most puerile and offensively bad shows I had seen in quite some time. A few days distance has mellowed that viewpoint a little, but mainly to replace indignation with frustration at the choices in both play and production. Writer Scott Morgan has put together a pretty bog-standard American high school drama – when Queen Bee Flissy Joy has her plans to win the school beauty pageant derailed by Daddy cutting her off, she and her clique of plastics turn to new girl plain Jane to makeover her into a prize-winning stooge and catch the eye of handsome jock Billy-Bob into the bargain. But it is such a saturated genre that every plot point, twist and gag can be traced back to Glee, Cruel Intentions, She’s All That, Mean Girls, etc etc… and with little sense that anything new has been added here.
Musically, Morgan’s score is functional rather than distinguished, Benjamin Holder’s over-amplified musical direction far too heavy on the drums (on this night at least) though it is sung proficiently. But dramatically, it suffers from trying to be too clever in self-referencing as a pastiche of both the high school genre (‘don’t run down the corridor, douchebag’) and of musical theatre itself (‘”where were you?” just singing a song outside…’), without having the requisite sharp-edged wit or dramatic chops to carry it off throughout the whole show. Perhaps to overcompensate for this, directors Porl Matthews (who also designs) and Jamie Chapman Dixon throw everything, the kitchen sink AND the blow-up doll at the show with a key note of the lewder and cruder the better which batters away with an unrelenting persistence which may well be to your tastes. It wasn’t to mine.
To say that former Egghead and producer of the show CJ de Mooi’s lascivious schoolteacher is overacted would be to understate the scene-chewing and word-mangling extravagance at hand here but there’s not enough control to really hit the comic beats full on and so it too often feels indulgent. Likewise, Mark Parton’s choreography is certainly ambitious but frequently misguidedly so – the opening sequence is way too hectic for such a small space which is a real shame as it means that the impressive acrobatics don’t get the attention they deserve and the arrival of three shirtless Spanish señors as flamenco-flavoured back-up for a song about a would-be lothario is somewhat baffling as I am pretty sure that Casanova was Italian…
Matthews’ set manages to make Acorn Antiques look solidly constructed with its wobbly walls and shaky segments but instead of making a virtue of its naffness, the cast are forced to blithely continue as if all is going fine. Which makes for the occasional laughs as performers try to squeeze through ever-narrowing gaps to move from scene to scene, but also actively works against the production as two rare moments of relative stillness are completely hijacked by the painfully jerky revolve of a piece of the set- perversely it’s one of the funniest things to happen on the stage but comes at the expense of the hard work of the performers.
And they do work hard – in the ensemble, Harry Cooper-Millar’s boy-fancying jock and Ciaran O’Driscoll’s doubling as a nerd and a goth stood out for me. But the uncertainty in the writing proves a stumbling block elsewhere: Lea Marinelli’s queen bitch Flissy Joy gets a stirring anthem to sing at a moment of personal crisis but it’s not immediately clear what its message is or how tongue-in-cheek she is being about having the chance to start again. And Anna Haresnape’s new girl Jane is given very little to work with given that it is her character’s journey, such as it is, that forms the main thrust of the show and its ultimate destination (insofar as the person she becomes) strikes a bum note.
This conflict between whether this is a send-up of the genre or an active part of it is what hobbles the show. I can hear the argument ‘you shouldn’t take it so seriously’ but the business of making people laugh is a serious one, it requires attention to detail and consistency. Instead we end up with an unevenness about what is being lampooned, a parade of lewd sex gags and a barrage of swear words in place of actual humour or satirical commentary and it just becomes wearing.
That said, there are flashes of potential – much of the youthful cast acquit themselves well, Morgan’s songwriting shows real promise in its quieter moments and the young directors also demonstrate talent in the way that they do manage to tease out the few notes of charm and genuine humour amidst all the chaos – but for me, there was little more than that. Approach with caution.