“The critics won’t like it”
Sometimes, returning to shows that might not have lived up to original expectations can reveal real treasures and several of London’s fringe theatres have built up a reputation in doing just that, notably the Finborough and the Union. And it is the latter who have opted to tackle notorious 90s flop musical Moby Dick, a frankly batshit meta-adaptation of the Herman Melville novel by Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden.
Moby Dick’s conceit is that it is a show-within-in-a-show, the students and staff of St Godley’s Academy for Girls putting on a performance in order to save their school, and what a frantically high-energy performance it is. So much so that it’s frightfully difficult to work out exactly what the hell is going on – a tongue-in-cheek synopsis of Moby Dick (the novel) is helpfully provided but there’s no guide to navigating the whirlpool of this production.
Directed by noted choreographer Andrew Wright, it amps up the self-referential campery to wearying levels – there isn’t a joke which isn’t done to death, a visual reference that isn’t hammered home repeatedly, it’s a bit like being asked ‘do you get it yet?’ over and over. Musically it is heavy-handed too, giving a sense of overload and making you wonder if being swallowed by a whale might not be the worst way to go.
The cast are certainly committed though and in rare moments where the dial isn’t turned right up, manage some effective work. Brenda Edwards’ Esta stands out in an impassioned ‘A Man Happens’, so of course she rarely appears in the show again; Rachel Anne Rayham’s Ishmael manages to find some subtlety in her comedy; and Anton Stephans’ manic glint as headmistress Dame Rhoda playing Captain Ahab is characteristic of the show’s excesses, for better or for worse.
Though it wasn’t for me, this production does seem set to reinforce Moby Dick’s status as a cult classic – if you liked it before, you’ll probably love it now. I’m just not sure how many new fans it’ll win over.