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A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!




Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment presents

The Mystery of Edwin Drood


Photo by Claire Bilyard


The Solve-It-Yourself Musical


Based on the final, incomplete novel of Charles Dickens

Book, music and lyrics by Rupert Holmes

Musical Director James Cleave

Orchestrations Tony Osborne

Director Matthew Gould

Starring Wendi Peters


Arts Theatre


18 May - 17 June 2012

Far from being high art, this tawdry musical strolls gamely between two worlds – those who, as Shaw was wont to say, ‘can’t afford morals’, in Dickens day like the ‘ladies of the streets’ he sympathetically defended, and toffs, among them, Vicars, Chairmen, Choirmasters and the like. Much of the musicals’ humour lies in its ability to step outside of itself and gleefully poke fun as though through the eyes of its audience. As Music Halls were plentiful and reeked with the Great Unwashed in Dickens day, not having caught on in a big way yet with their ‘betters’, audience and actors are both viewed here through more or less, the same motley lens. As this show is based on the completed half of Dickens final and fifteenth novel, with its’ at that point, loosely fleshed premise and characters/caricatures worthy of any Music Hall, one can only surmise that Dickens, though ever over-worked from insomnia, giving his all to everything he wrote and, legendarily enacted at his vigorous public readings, (most notably, the scene from Oliver Twist in which Bill Sikes murders Nancy) must have nonetheless, been in good humour indeed when he suddenly collapsed at his beloved Gads Hill in Higham, Kent, only to meet his untimely demise next day, June 8, 1870. Much of his work is something of a puzzle, as to which people and events from his own life it may be drawn from, though what’s always abundantly clear is that, beneath those characters we tend to view as humorous stereotypes today, is a startlingly apt view of Victorian life among the masses, however pretty or kind a face rare individuals among them might have been granted in Dickens tales to make them more palatable and/or intriguing to the upper classes.

Young Edwin Drood seems something of a reckless upstart, with his tendency to challenge any man who irks him. But the fact that snow-white, much admired Rosa Budd is his betrothed seems to indicate he’s got something on the ball. Ironically, in perhaps, a case of art imitating wishful thinking on Dickens part, the pair decide to amicably forgo marriage in favour of undying friendship. In the aftermath of their new vow, Edwin mysteriously vanishes. What has become of him? As this play within a play draws to a close, It is up to the audience to decide, and the spotlight is turned on us as the characters come down from the stage and take polls in the audience, section by section, as to who they think did Edwin Drood in. concocting a seemingly impromptu ending to their show from the results, subject to change at every performance. A challenging prospect, but one which the talented cast seems only too eager to embrace.

In its original Broadway incarnation in 1985, Drood, brainchild of English born, American composer Rupert Holmes, who’s since, written songs for several musicals of his own, and, singing stars like Barbra Streisand, The Mystery of Edwin Drood walked off with 5 Tonys, including Best Musical, and it’s easy to see why. The show positively reeks with evocative ‘80’s wardrobe and pancake makeup atmosphere, thankfully, adhered to here, adding to its’ DIY charm. Small wonder then, that there is, seemingly, more than a smidgen of ‘80’s Lloyd Webber in the melodies of this show’s ballads, as their time periods coincide. That’s not to say Drood’s ballads are not lovely in their own right, but there are distinct echoes of Sarah Brightman’s Christine from Phantom  in its’ reoccurring ballad ‘Moonfall’ and the way it is sung that stamp Drood a decidedly ‘80’s musical. Maybe that’s just me, remembering when a myriad of vintage film personas were on show via full and varied regalia in underground clubs of that era. But there’s an enduring charm to such shameless references that only serves to make them more endearing.  

There are some fine performers in this show, from, for those frequenting London theatres, some very recognizable faces, among them, the very able Daniel Robinson as boo-hiss choirmaster, John Joseph who lusts after the fair Rosa Budd (Victoria Farley). All that’s missing here is the twidly mustache. Robinson’s harmonic duets with Farley are sheer musical bliss, as is the tension between characters. Farley, drama school graduate circa 2009, looks and sounds set to ascend the steps of musical stardom.

Since Dickens first love was always, theatre, oft set in the makeshift world of the music hall, this panto-esque show is riff with comic highpoints. In this production, these are very comic indeed, as many of them are repeatedly generated by the same expert purveyors of hilarity, among them, the show’s dapper Chairman/scene setter - the very excellent Dennis Delahunt, and, low-class and proud of it, Durdles, embodied here with unself-conscious panache by Paul Hutton. Both actors exude enviable comic timing, as does David Francis as ‘alien’ baddie Neville Landless, albeit in a more openly cliché style as required, and, Richard Sterling, as perpetually embarrassed, potentially, secretly bawdy, Rev. Crisparkle.  Encompassing the notion of foreigner with an indecipherable accent of unknown origins is Loula Geater as puzzlingly darkened (facially) brother Neville’s conniving but intoxicatingly glamorous sister, Helena. As male impersonators go, Natalie Day as diva du jour Alice Nutting is not very convincing as Edwin Drood, especially with a prominent bun tied tightly to the back of her head, but that’s the idea, her ‘stardom’ being all about nerve, even in Queen Vic’s day. That said, Day’s singing is a bona fide treat.

Last, but not least, Oliver Mawdley’s lanky frame, merrily rolling eyes and self - lampooning Victorian bravado emphasize the artificiality of it all in his two roles as Horace and, Mr. James Throttle, inspiring much laughter from galleries and stalls alike. Among the swing members of the cast, Ben Goffe is also a definite standout, not as much for his diminutive stature, as for his similarly robust singing voice, cheery, winning enthusiasm, and unbridled energy which are all, very infectious.  Though actors tend to switch roles here, with lead players tackling two each, the second of their characters oft tends to seem more like a type than their initial guise, so my focus was more on their overall message as metaphors, rather than on the characters themselves. Dickens was a great one for installing types where needed.

The well received, energetic dancing in this show almost seems incidental, much in the way songs from a jukebox might in a musical set in the 1950s. This is set in a Music Hall after all, and so, dancing is always, full on!

As Princess Puffer, Coronation Street star Wendi Peter’s ‘cockney’ is laid on so thick, it’s more like mixed fruit jam than apples and pears, and given her regularly intermittent appearances, more or less like clockwork, that might present problems, were it not for the fact that this show within a show is so obviously, tongue in cheek.  However, Ms. Peter’s solo spotlight moments on her singing of ‘The Garden Path to Hell’ have distinct showbiz shimmer, generating their own unique form of tragi-comic magic.

Scenery here looks like Music Hall done in ye old school hall style, with painted curtained back and sides. Visually, only the obviously professional lighting indicates that this is a ‘don’t try this at home’ show. It’s really great to see a worthy fringe production like this tripping the light fantastic up West. More please!

Costumes in this Dickensian extravaganza seem a blend of David Lean type Victorian and somewhere in the ballpark, however left field, which curiously, only adds to the fun. The fact that this was originally a fringe production lends an uncanny credibility to that mix. An upbeat, very live orchestra consisting of a mere handful of musicians under the baton of James Cleeve covers all the shows musically melodramatic angles with knowing aplomb, smilingly taking mini-bows when nodded to near the end.
Director Matthew Gould has covered all the exaggerated mannerisms of actors of the period, as viewed today, in a ‘silent film’ type way, with singers playing to the boys up in the gallery, and acting as if those down front are the moneyed lot, which, they undoubtedly are, by comparison! Naturally, some actors are capable of interpreting their instructions more seamlessly than others, and such gifted individuals, though oft dubbed character actors, rather than stars, invariably make invaluable contributions, shining brightly in ensemble casts. There are several such players performing here in Edwin Drood.

All told, this production is extremely good natured and thus, recommended as a fun night out. The hard working cast, in conjunction with Dickens droll but knowing sensibilities, particularly as they pertain to class, comingle amicably through broad, Victorian style, to us, OTT performing, intermittent sing-a-longs of Music Hall favourites, and oft raucous good humour to assure that a jolly good time is had by all.

Wendi Peters in The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Arts Theatre

Photo by Claire Bilyard
Arts Theatre
Great Newport Street
London WC2
Tuesday - Saturday at 7.30pm
Thursday & Saturday at 3.00pm
Sunday at 4.00pm
Tickets: £10.00 - £40.00
Friday 18 - Sunday 20 May all seats £20.00
Box office: 020 7836 8463



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