Review: When Midnight Strikes, Upstairs at the Gatehouse

“Making resolutions we’ll hold on fast”

Abigail may have been the one holding the party in the 70s but on Millenium Eve, it is Jennifer West who is the hostess with the mostess as she invites friends and family over for a dinner party in her swanky Manhattan apartment. But unexpected guests throw her seating plan awry, the booze is flowing just a little too liberally and more importantly, she’s found an incriminating note in her husband’s coat pocket – it is clear this will be a New Year’s Eve to remember… Kevin Hammonds and Charles Miller’s musical When Midnight Strikes first played at the Finborough in 2007 and those stalwart defenders of new British musical theatre Aria Entertainments, along with co-producers Penny Rock Productions, have put on its first revival at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse theatre pub.

At a time when the future of the new British musical is bemoaned, it is a wonder that this score isn’t better known. Miller marries a pop sensibility to the rigours of a book musical and has produced something that flows with a vibrancy and urgency through Hammonds’ story, hooking us in with swirling balladry (there’s at least two songs that could become cabaret standards), perky comedic numbers, and a genuine sense of the storytelling power of this form. ‘Shut Up’ is a marvellously frank song which sees various characters voice their inner thoughts about the inanity of making small talk with random fellow partygoers; I Never combines the raucous revelations of a drinking game with candid insights into the emotional lives of those playing,

Directors Grant Murphy and Damian Sandys have assembled an excellent twelve-strong cast to present the show and wisely keep a steady flow of traffic out to the (off-stage) balcony to keep the stage as uncluttered as possible in the quieter moments. Miranda Wilford nails the WASP-y iciness of Jennifer, holding back the heartbreak until the revelation that the person her husband, Ashley Emerson’s chiselled Christopher, is cheating on her with is one of the guests at the party; Sarah Harlington impresses as her more emotionally open younger sister Twyla and Stephanie Parker’s brittle friend Nicole suggests much depth beneath her disdainful mask. Cognisant of the significant date, everyone seems on the cusp of major change as family and friends and love and sex collide with just the promise of new resolutions pointing towards the future.

There are perhaps a couple too many characters though for us to gain a sense of genuine engagement across the board. No-one really gets enough time in the spotlight to be fully fleshed out – even Jennifer remains something of an enigma, few details of her life emerge beyond a predilection for champagne – and some of the more minor characters are complete mysteries – quite why hippyish Zoe is tolerated is unclear, enigmatic ginger nut Alex has a plan but aside from loitering in doorways, I don’t think we see it. But where the material is given, it is delivered well – Lucyelle Cliffe and Newley Aucutt have an absolute ball with their unlikely hook-up song and Jessica Anne Ball’s wannabe actress waitressing for the night finds the most graceful moments of quiet emotion.

With such a elegant score to hand, Matt Ramplin’s musical direction wisely keeps the orchestra to his piano and Marta Tobar’s cello and together, they create a glorious sound which serves as a constant reminder of just how tuneful and cohesive a piece of work this is, and it is ideally suited to the intimacy of this theatre.

Booking until 29th September

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