Wilton’s Music Hall until 15th October
Written by Tina Landau and Adam Guettell
Directed by Jonathan Butterell
Produced by Amanda Holland
Three siblings and a widowed father; their late mother unseen, yet ever-present; are hiding from their lives, unable to connect emotionally. Floyd (Ashley Robinson) seeks solace in the dark places of the world. The city slicker Homer (Samuel Thomas) is on the point of cutting his ties, when drawn back to rescue his brother. Fragile Nellie (the excellent Rebecca Trehearn) is recently reunited with her family after a time in a mental hospital. Their father (Jack Chissick) has retreated into religious zealotry despite the best efforts of his second wife, Miss Jane (Sarah Ingram). Then Floyd is trapped underground and the family must examine what divide and unites them. Enter the unlikely hero, the timid reporter Skeets Miller (convincingly played by Daniel Booroff).The historic setting is 1920’s Kentucky. In the mountains of that beautiful region, generations of Anglo-Saxon immigrants have nurtured a powerful culture; music and dance of honest simplicity. Listen to Ralph Stanley sing ‘Oh Death’ on the soundtrack of ‘Oh Brother How Art Though.’ Or Jack White’s work on ‘Cold Mountain’. Listen to the soaring vocal harmonies of sacred harp music and thrill to the passion of flat-foot and contra dancing.
This production eschews that trope in favour of a conventional “Musical Theatre” approach. If there is a nod to history, it is to secondary sources, the technicolour cowboy musicals of the 1950s (although without sight of a decent chorus or hook).
The characters are corn-fed, the drama mannered and formulaic. There are an absurd number of sub plots, a parade of pantomime villains which include, a Baron Hard-up, a drunken uncle, an evil movie mogul and a cowardly minstrel. A confused doctor wanders into a scene, wondering what he’s doing on set. He’s not the only one. As the teeming crowds and media circus above ground hamper the rescue attempt, so the plot is buried as deeply as Floyd.The vocals, both harmonies and delivery, are standard MT-art house, histrionic, multi layered and flamboyant. Dance is 1950’s Broadway. The banjo is underused (a line never written before by any reviewer) and there is no mandolin. There are violins but no fiddles. There is a lot of very loud shouting where a climax should be.
If you love the form, you’ll be giving it a standing ovation. If you don’t you’re more likely to miss the end, we lost a good few at the interval.
Much of what should have been explored stays hidden. What is left is a superb and impressive spectacle of musical theatre with a cavern at its heart as large as the one that Floyd dreams of.
★★ “A triumph of form over content”
Guest Review by Laura Thomas
Laura Thomas is the alter ego of playwright and musician Andrew Sharpe and is his pen name when writing music and theatre reviews, see www.andrewsharpe.co.uk