A pub with a theatre above it is my idea of heaven, especially when the show is a musical, so I had a spring in my step and a smile on my face as we hit Kentish Town and headed for the Lion and Unicorn. Firstly what a lovely pub, it’s been tastefully renovated but is still recognisably “local” and was packed with friendly faces enjoying a cold drink on a warm sunny evening. It would have been churlish not to join them so we settled down with the essential vodka and tonics before show time.
The musical with the very strange title (more on that later) is a heavily fictionalised account of the last few years in the life of Victorian music hall star Dan Leno, who, after suffering debilitating headaches and an apparent mental breakdown, is committed to an asylum by his wife. The two acts follow Leno’s treatment at the hands of the head of the asylum, the brutal Miss Cornthwaite, and her assistant, the tender Miss Proudfoot, and through a series flashbacks we get the background story of a troubled man.
With book and lyrics by Jonathan Kydd and music by Andy Street, the show is presented in the style of the music hall, presided over by a master of ceremonies and with faux period songs.
Basically it’s ok, not terrible, not great. There is a standout turn from Sarah Earnshaw as Miss Proudfoot who is actually so good that she outshines everyone else with ease. Chris Vincent as Dan Leno is a little underwhelming and the remainder of the cast sometimes ham up the not terribly witty script, packed with embarrassingly unfunny single entendres, to such an extent that I was squirming in my seat on more than one occasion.
Some of the songs hit the mark, with Sarah Earnshaw and Claire Marlowe, as Leno’s wife, both captivating during their moments in the spotlight. My favourite of the Leno numbers has to be the title one, a nonsense song about a wasp that falls in love with a boiled egg that would have made Spike Milligan proud.
The story is enlightening on the treatment on mental illness a century ago, but the central conceit that Leno’s problems stem from his personal demons as a bisexual female impersonator with an Oedipus complex is trounced when we are informed that he had a brain tumour. This consequently leaves much of what has gone before irrelevant.
The problem is, with Edwin Drood following a similar, but much more successful route across town, this really does suffer by comparison. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed some of it, but it feels like a work in progress that’s got nowhere else to go. Jonathan Kydd, who also directed and produced, may have bitten off more than he could chew and a larger creative team might have been of benefit.
On the plus side, Sarah Earnshaw is magnificent, the band of piano, cello, violin and drums make a glorious sound and the costumes, by Alison Cartledge, look period perfect to my, admittedly not very well-informed, eyes. Also, the pub downstairs is so good that I will definitely look out for other productions at this venue again.
Booking until 10 June 2012, disappointing - The Hard Boiled Egg & The Wasp