“At least a rat ‘as got an excuse”
In the cut-throat world of the West End, introducing a new musical is an undoubted challenge so it is quite gratifying to see the backers of Bumblescratch going all out to make its mark with this gala concert launch. With merchandise available, a full-throttle social media campaign in train, and a top-notch cast and creative team making the most of their two week rehearsal period, there’s certainly no lack of ambition here.
Set in London during the Great Plague of 1665 and Great Fire of 1666, the show is told from the perspective of plague rat Melbourne Bumblescratch and the anthropomorphic nature of the musical should come as no surprise once you learn it was written by Robert J Sherman, who has both form of his own (Love Birds) and an impressive family history (A Spoonful of Sherman) to live up to when it comes to writing a tune or two.
And Bumblescratch certainly has a song or two, racking up 37 in its through-sung couple of hours. It’s fascinating to see Sherman stretch his creative side this way – early songs like the jaunty ‘At Least A Rat ‘as Got An Excuse’ and child’s-audition-stalwart-in-the-making ‘Adorable Me!’ continue the quirky, light-hearted style that characterises much of Love Birds, but there’s also a distinct move into a more mature vein of musical theatre, as the plot darkens and becomes more emotionally dramatic.
This shift isn’t quite as successful yet, Sherman’s stretching of his own musical identity pushes the score into solid but occasionally unremarkable balladry, leaving too much of it sounding the same. There’s also a bit of a split in the book – Melbourne’s lascivious ways are put in check by his adoption of a young’un called Perry but the way in which the story unfolds, with its human love interests, ghost pirate kings and gory deaths, is inconsistent (is this a show for families or not?) and at times, unclear. The unrelenting focus on Melbourne also has the impact of inhibiting effective characterisations for the supporting cast.
But it is early days yet for Bumblescratch and even if a cast recording is already in the offing, there’s still much time for the show to develop further. And that recording, courtesy of SimG Productions, will hopefully capture much of what was very good about Stewart Nicholls’ production here, not least its superb cast. Darren Day led charismatically from the front as the titular rodent, Michael Xavier had great fun as the ghostly Hookbeard (‘I Cannot Hear You’ being a comic highlight), and 13 year old Ilan Galkoff emerges as a great performer, certainly a name to watch out for.