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Out of the Box: A New Musical
Etcetera Theatre
21st August 2014

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for Out of the Box: A New Musical

Photography provided by Chatty Rabbit Theatre

Does television these days just seem like sex, drugs and shallow ambition? If so, this musical will resound with you, but if you're looking for anything much deeper, you might be disappointed. Out of the Box is nearly all happy-go-lucky farcical frippery - and did I mention it's about television already?

Our introduction is as in-your-face as the average all-American commercial, introducing one-by-one the workers at an utterly over-the-top TV station. The owner, Sylva Brady (Amy Hewett) is a barely repressed dominatrix, who has a weakness for bouncy bimbo Thandie (Martha Grant), her secretary. The main anchor is Valerie (Jessica Ramsey), who put us in mind of Ruby Wax minus the cool. Valerie's younger sister Maisie (Lauren Saunders) is working as a slutty, if misguided, intern. Not in the main line-up is coffee boy Bobby (Sam Bradshaw), who is permanently stoned, but nevertheless the object of Maisie's infatuation.

Immediately after the glitzy, raucous introductions, the cast break into a promisingly fun number, Secrets, where they air all their dirty laundry. Whether they are having affairs, on drugs, on Red Bull, or just sex-mad, it seems they think they must do something desperate to get by in the television industry. There could be an attempt to critique the real media industry but if it is in there it is steam-rollered under the weight of the one-dimensional characters. A series of loosely strung together scenes let us find out more about our protagonists, without applying any real depth.

It takes a while until we experience anything akin to another dimension from any of the characters, and in a musical comedy of this nature, I suppose this is not strictly required. However, as her younger sister's self-centred sex-drive gets her in trouble, Valerie becomes so stressed, buzzed and paranoid on energy drinks that her ability to anchor on the show shatters in a hilariously ridiculous style. This prompts her to be replaced by the far more charismatic - well, in a Page 3 sort of way - Thandie, whose bitchy side suddenly comes out with her rise in popularity.

Publicity image for Out of the Box: A New Musical

Photography provided by Chatty Rabbit Theatre

Now convinced that she lacks not only the youth, but the backing of her boss, Valerie takes out her woes on her sister. Character development kicks in, as we see the relationship between Valerie and Maisie is more complex than it first appeared. Valerie's strict control of her sister (as surrogate mother, following the copulative death of their parents) has forced Maisie to rebel, seek out sex, drugs and infamy, and forced her into the arms of the layabout Bobby, who lives in squalor and a permanent state of drug-induced drowsiness.

The songs help to keep the plot moving in a very upbeat way, although at times the pacing feels slightly too fast - see Clocks Go Back. The modern style is straightforward and for the most part, not especially memorable, but we see some impressive duets, particularly the arguing in Not as Young between Maisie and Valerie, which is a great demonstration of the singing abilities of Ramsey and Saunders, as well as Tom McGrath's writing. We also hear some fantastic vocals from Maisie in New Beginnings, a dramatic number reminiscent of For the First Time in Forever. This is arguably the artistic highlight of the whole show and narrowly overcomes the risk of feeling too Disney with Saunders' increasingly impressive clear and powerful voice.

The stereotypical extroversion of the characters, while important for the comedy, is something director Rowland Bennett needs to keep in check; there are moments when Hewett is definitely too loud. On the whole though, the singing is solid, and there are several examples of harmonies being deployed more intelligently than the lyrics themselves, such as in Finale.

The exploration of being desperate for success being ultimately self-destroying is not that deep, but Out of the Box satirises the TV industry with some great pantoesque wit and it does achieve what it sets out to do. We'll definitely be staying tuned for more from Chatty Rabbit Theatre.

Out of the Box: A New Musical ran from 21st to 24th August 2014 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)



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