“There’ll always be someone will does a show like this”
Despite being one of my hyper-local venues, I’ve only been to the White Bear theatre pub once before and being honest, I booked for The Last Ever Musical as much out of morbid curiosity as anything, as it had received several of the kind of reviews that put it somewhere dangerous on the Fram scale. Though as it turned out, it was nowhere near as bad as reports would have it, whilst still feeling a little underwhelming for a piece of new musical theatre writing.
A bullish programme note from composer Richard Bates sets out an intriguing stall – purporting to hold a mirror to London’s fringe theatre scene and reflecting all of its aspects, the ugliness alongside the beauty, critically appraising as well as celebrating this world in which he has worked for the last 10 years or so. But this premise doesn’t feel wholly borne out by the show, Simon James Collier’s book and Bates’ music and lyrics never really alchemising to achieve their intended aims.
The show centres around theatre producer Brian Wilts and the trials he faces when investor demands mean his latest play, a feminist polemic, has to be turned into a cast-iron certain hit by turning it into an all-guns-blazing musical. Stroppy writers, floaty directors, sleazy composers and fame-hungry casting directors all have to be balanced with the corporate sponsorship from a feminist hygiene company, turning the focus of the show into tampons.
But though there’s rich pickings in this world of theatrical folk and random shift in subject matter, Collier’s book never really fleshes out the stereotypes and relies too heavily on a series of biting one-liners which are never really delivered sharply enough to get the laughs – Jonathan Barnes’ Brian suffers particularly from this fate, making him a flatly unempathetic protagonist. The show-within-a-show feels like a missed opportunity and the choice to introduce choreography throughout feels an odd concession to standard tropes of musical theatre.
Bates’ score shows more promise, it takes chutzpah indeed to parody contemporary composers such as Jason Robert Brown and Scott Alan and when flourishes of his personality are allowed to peep through, the show works. These come in the all-too-rare moments when songs focus on his wealth of experience of life on the fringe as in the excellent ‘Why Do We Do This To Ourselves’, rather than the shenanigans of the story as it stands. Should the show be refined, greater focus on this side – as proclaimed in the programme – could see it improve considerably.