Review: Flames, Waterloo East Theatre

“You’ll live your life in constant fear
We’ll have to make him disappear”

Cripes. Flames is described as a “suspense-filled musical thriller” but whether intentional or not, it proved to be one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. Its campy, schlocky vibes are like an episode of Sunset Beach happening before your very eyes and yet played with such seriousness, I’m really not sure that that is what they were aiming for at all. Stephen Dolginoff – whose Thrill Me has recently been revived for a UK tour – once again takes on sole duty for book, music and lyrics to explore murderous mystery but I’m not sure these flames have ignited in the way he might have intended, here at the Waterloo East Theatre.

Stockbroker Edmond died in disgrace a year ago in a fire and fiancée Meredith and best friend Eric are paying their respects at his graveside but they’re haunted by several questions. Did he really commit a terrible crime before dying? If so, where’s the money? Is it ok for Eric to have the hots for his dead best friend’s girl? Why does she take her coat off if it’s a stormy night? And how are those candles meant to be staying alight? Does Eric need his eyes testing? In fact, do they all need their eyes testing – no-one seems to see anyone coming in this cemetery. And just how sharp is that umbrella?

The show doesn’t start off silly. Garry Noakes’ production has a serious beginning as we establish the parameters of the story and even after the first jump shock of the night, there’s something slightly intriguing about the direction we seem to be headed in. Dolginoff’s chord-based piano score feels rather simple musically but it is played appealingly by Mathew Eglinton and has moments of great tunefulness, especially in the gorgeous voice of Abi Finley’s Meredith, assuredly the ‘right choice’ and delicately moving at both ends of her register. And even the use of flashbacks to tell us competing version of “what happened the night of the fire” is relatively well done in this lo-fi style with Ali Hunter’s lighting to be credited there.

But once the secrets start tumbling out of the closet, or up out of the grave, or out from behind that fringe, the soapy twists and turns of the story take us into the realm of the ridiculous. Enjoyably so, it must be said, the utterly straight bat with which Bradley Clarkson and David O’Mahony tackle their roles lands on the right side of hamminess and they’re both agreeably strong singers. It’s just that the thrills provided here end up tickling the funnybone more than shivering the spine. The spare details of Mathais Krajewski’s design seems to nod to and work with Flames’ B-movie charms and taken in that respect, it’s one of the best nights I’ve had in a theatre for quite a while.

Running time: 100 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 31st May

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