Can you remember what you did on Friday 22 June 2012? I witnessed the birth of a star, but more of that later.
I hadn’t previously encountered this loose adaptation of the Manchurian Candidate by John Dempsey (book & lyrics) and Dana P.Rowe (music) and I’ve stopped doing too much pre-show internet research as the risk of spoilers is too great (sometimes Wikipedia gets straight to the point). We arrived suitably uninformed at the gloriously ramshackled Union with no preconceptions and settled into our usual table in the funky bar for pre-show vodka and tonics like a post-modern Minnie Caldwell and Ena Sharples. Joy of joys, they even had ice and slices of lime.
I have seen some truly incredible productions on the fringe this year, but what director Michael Strassen and his team have done with this sophisticated, intelligent, witty show sweeps all competition aside.
Cal Chandler, the son of a likely future US president who dies while in flagrante with a mistress, is groomed by Violet, his scheming mother, and Grahame, his Machiavellian uncle, with whom he has a disturbing relationship, to take his father’s mantle.
Initially reluctant to follow in his father’s footsteps, Cal is seduced by the trappings of power, but becomes a liability with a serious drug problem, an affair with an ex-stripper and links to the mafia. As Cal finally sees the error of his ways and tries to right his wrongs, the action steamrolls towards an inevitable but still shocking climax.
With no set and just a handful of props, including a stars and stripes flag, the production team’s creativity has been left to speak for itself. Every inch of the Union’s performance space is used for stylish staging and startling dance routines. The lighting by Steve Miller, mainly red, white and blue with atmospheric back lighting changes the mood in an instant and the four-piece band of piano, guitar, bass and drums, led by musical director Simon Lambert, keep the contemporary score driving the action.
I have left comments on the cast to the end for very good reason, the entire company seems to be performing as if Cameron Mackintosh is in the front row and about to cast the lead in his new musical. However, the triumvirate of Cal, Violet and Grahame are little less than miraculous.
Liz May Brice as Val, in a Jackie O wig and black cocktail dress, is an exercise in understatement, reluctant to let her social position slip from her grasp. Fuelled by gin and with her own dark secret, she dreams of being the power behind the throne, the matriarch of a Kennedy-esque clan and will let nothing stand in her way. Only towards the end of the second act does Brice let the mask and the wig slip and we see a broken lonely woman. She also has one of the best lines of the evening “is it possible to be drunk and hungover at the same time?”.
Miles Western’s arch manipulator Grahame is the sleazy love child of Richard III, Kaiser Soze, Alastair Campbell and Simon Cowell. Rotten through and through, closeted and crippled by childhood polio, his rage at the world and the hand he has been dealt is never far from the surface, but is sometimes pricked with bitter asides revealing the glimmer of a soul somewhere deep inside.
Finally, Louis Maskell as Cal. This takes me back to my first sentence. Very occasionally someone appears and you wonder where on earth did all this talent come from. This was one of those moments. Starting off a good looking tousle haired layabout, he slowly metamorphoses into a handsome, sharp-suited monster, but all the time there is a pain etched into his face that communicates directly to the audience that he is just a boy floundering in an adult world. Maskell gets right to the heart of Cal and has a control and range to his voice that is equal to a young Mandy Patinkin. If Cameron Mackintosh had been sitting in the front row instead of me, the ink would already be dry on Maskell’s contract. He is truly astonishing.
With the cleverest book and lyrics this side of Sondheim, a pounding score full of light and shade and an entire company firing on all cylinders, this is quite simply the best production I have seen on the fringe this year. I feel like having a Spinal Tap moment and awarding it six stars but, unlike the Chandlers, I’ll play by the rules and give it a resounding five.
Booking until 14 July 2012, perfection, at the risk of seeming shouty, DO NOT MISS - The Fix