views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Metropolis
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
13th October 2017

★★★☆☆

The company

Photography © David Ovenden

Musicals are rarely subtle, but Metropolis has even more obvious plot devices and allegories than most. Privileged John Freeman (Gareth James) runs the technologically advanced surface, whilst Maria (Miiya Alexandra) mothers the little children down below. For the underclasses (who literally live underneath the rich), fatal industrial accidents are a part of everyday life. They're all expendable. One day, Steven Freeman (Rob Herron), effectively heir to the throne, meets the lovely lower-class worker Maria and falls head-over-heels in love with her - well, to the extent that a one-sleeved bourgeoisie hero can. (His earnest, wistful questioning of to whom she 'belongs' does not go unnoticed by a modern day audience.) There's also an humanoid robot called Futura (Alexandra) thrown into the mix.

Whilst on paper, it is admittedly easy to understand why this silent movie adaptation was a box office flop back in 1989, I've never been disappointed when taking a chance on a revival by All Star Productions. This is after all the same company that managed to pull off Into the Woods with more style than powerhouse Disney, and made the unwatchable Superman into a laugh-a-minute musical treat. I went into this show hoping to love it.

The production nonetheless suffers from a false start. Vocally, the ensemble are not as strong as the calibre of performers that the company usually casts - the lack of Ben Newsome's usual involvement can be felt here. Some singers struggle with their solo lines, particularly in the first few songs, lacking the individual power of leads Herron or Alexandra. Given the absence of microphones and joyous ferocity of musical director Aaron Clingham's small but perfectly formed orchestra, anyone singing unsupported needs to project more confidently to be heard. Although Kitty Whitelaw has no such problem belting out her lines, her accent curiously meanders through Europe, sometimes straying from Germany into France as Dr Warner. It's a distraction from her performance as a whole.

Any passing discontent is rapidly forgotten thanks to the the big ensemble harmonies (the choral numbers like When Maria Wakes are executed particularly well) and power duets between Herron and Alexandra. As flawed a hero as Freeman Junior is, Herron's vocals endear us to the character and we find ourselves rooting for Steven and Maria. Alexandra has a simply stunning voice and she shines both in her roles as mother Mary and the perfect woman. James also deserves a mention for his steady support and faultless rendition of The Machines Are Beautiful, which brings depth to his authoritarian portrayal of Mr Freeman.

Joe Brooks and Dusty Hughes' book feels rather dated, with costume designer Joana Dias mirroring this in the wardrobe. The use of bright, garish colours, varied textures and one-armed shirts makes for a vision of the future that could feasibly have been dreamt up when the musical was first staged. It's a fitting interpretation - making the design too slick would only highlight the gap between our idea of the future and the 1980s' idea of the future. This is a show of its time, and to stage it without that self-awareness would detract from our enjoyment. (Although, if this is what fashion in nine years' time looks like, count me out - even the 1990s were less embarrassing than this.)

Justin Williams and Jonny Rust's stage is back-to-front, with the usual seating area converted into a credible industrial zone with its brushed bronze pipes and cogs, and projected video messages displayed on the back wall. The computer - powered by all the humans down below - is represented by simple sheets of coloured plastic. What they've done with the limited space they have works very well. Certainly, Tim McArthur always creates a sense of constant activity without the stage feeling cramped. The ensemble pushing hands to evoke the generation of energy is an example of the simple but powerful choreography employed by Ian Pyle, and there's a great moment of comedy in Futura trying to dance - predictably like a robot - with the spoiled upper-class youth mimicking her actions.

Metropolis is surely one of the ropiest musicals that All Star Productions have ever dusted off, but the artistic decisions they've made have definitely helped revitalise it as far as it can be saved. There's a overwhelming sense that the company are working incredibly hard to overcome the inherent disadvantage of what is a particularly lacklustre book and you do wonder if it would be so terrible to just pick a crowdpleaser for once and put their all into that. However, they like a challenge, they've embraced it fully and the result makes for a fun night out which will undoubtedly end in many long discussions about the musical as a whole, and the merits of its protagonists.

Metropolis opened on 10th October and runs until 29th October 2017 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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