views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Dead in the Water
The Hen and Chickens
12th August 2014

★★★☆☆

Photography provided by Balls in the Air

When the truth is stranger than fiction, borrowing from history always makes for a good plot. Dead in the Water, a new musical from Balls in the Air, is based on the real story of a tramp whose body was dumped in the sea, disguised as an army major in - well, what turned out to be a pretty successful - attempt to pass false information onto the Nazis. A far-fetched idea you might think, and Bond creator Ian Fleming even had a part in it, but it did result in enemy resources being diverted during a bloody part of World War II, helping to save lives. Like I said, stranger than fiction.

Billed as a tragicomedy, the tone of Dead in the Water is sometimes jarring. The comic elements are always strong, with some hilarious ensemble music numbers involving the Grim Reaper. However, moving from a traditional British romp into a ghostly and unsettling tale and back again is a bit too much of an ask in only 75 minutes.

Sophie Catherine doubles up as a British intelligence officer and a hospital matron, with a slightly sinister feel to both. Rightly or wrongly, the officer clearly believes she is doing her bit for the war effort, so why she's portrayed as so creepy, I'm not sure. A conspiracy plot maybe, but I can't help but feel that a certain amount of tragedy should come from her personal struggle to make a morally questionable decision. However, she just seems to delight in humiliating tramp Glyn (Lloyd Ryan Thomas), her chosen cadaver for the secret mission.

Of course, the story is told in flashbacks by one ghost to another, and our protagonist is gravely ill - and at the same time, dead - which does go some way to explain the odd shifts in tone. All the characters blur together in an ethereal and at times, confusing way. Not all of the individuals we encounter are - or were ever - meant to be real. Francesca Peplow not only plays the nurse who looks after Glyn, but the fiancée who he never had, a vision of the future that is purely because of his "sacrifice".

Peplow is charming and sweet in both parts, with Thomas moving between pathetic and assured. But whether a tramp or a real soldier, as we see the same one man acknowledge his impending death, there's a heroism to his actions. He knows his time is nearly up and he never begs or cheats. Thomas's accent work helps separate out his parts more clearly.

Issues with the tone aside, the original score is wonderfully composed, with music and lyrics by Paul Tibbey and Mark Simms. Unlike The Girl in the Blue Coat, this particular musical relies on a keyboard for support. No one tries to cram a full orchestra into the Hen and Chickens this time, and that's the right decision given the space and acoustics. We can hear the melody, but also the singers, just as it should be.

The set design is clever, with a privacy screen on the hospital ward doubling up as a stage wall, and the fabric echoing water stains, but actually a map of Europe. Squint, and you can make out Spain to the left. There are no major scene changes, we transition from one location to another quickly - we don't get as much time with the characters as we would like, but the versatile set does at least ensure there is no slack between sequences.

This may be a new piece of musical theatre, but it has a very old-school feel, with deliberately hammy acting in places and regional accents contrasting with RP. It's both serious and a lot of fun, and these two different qualities would probably merge together better with more time for the book to unfold. This production isn't going to win any Olympic medals soon, but it's certainly not struggling to keep its head float.

Dead in the Water opened on 12th August and runs until 23rd August 2014 at the Hen and Chickens, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highbury & Islington (Overground, Victoria)



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