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Scandinavian Heart
Upstairs at the Gatehouse
23rd August 2014

★★★☆☆

Publicity image for Scandinavian Heart

Photography supplied by the Camden Fringe

Why more musicals don't pitch up at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in August, I'll never know. It's one of the biggest venues in the Camden Fringe, and despite being technically "another theatre pub", it is one of the more traditional theatres in the off-West End and is big enough for some great acoustics. Having seen several shows squeeze into smaller, inappropriate venues this year, you have to credit the company for at least having the smarts to match the space to their production.

Dike Okoh's new musical Scandinavian Heart is a piece of vaguely political theatre, which is actually one of the more successful works of this genre that I've seen in recent memory. Okoh doesn't take one side and paint it in a totally unblemished light, rather when he presents us with a motley crew of five activists, we can immediately see they're shades of grey. There's always good and bad to every side and he's clever enough to reflect that in his book. It makes it far easier for the audience to relate to the characters, regardless of their own personal views.

The leader of the group, Victor (Samuel Morgan Grahame) comes across as the serious one. "Thinking is all well and good, but actions change the world", he states, saying it as if he believes it and taking a swipe at philosophy student David (Rory Hollands), who's just here to hang out with Brigitta (Liv Austen), not really buying into "now I'm changing the law".

Fun-loving couple Tariq (Waylon Jacobs) and Sally (Sally McConville) also lighten the atmosphere, as does the would-be love story between Brigitta and David. Jacobs and Hollands team up for a wonderfully funny duet in Call Me, where Tariq essentially tells David to man up and gives him some advice in how to persuade Brigitta to agree to a date. Although the music and lyrics are wildly entertaining, director Omar F Okai brings out a lot of humour in the physicality too with socially awkward David trying to get his swagger on and not quite managing it.

During the first few songs, some of the lyrics are swallowed due to the band winning out. In particular we miss all that Victor "was told" in Clear Blue Skies, a shame because we suspect the lyrics are probably quite clever. The space is big enough to mike up the singers, and that's something that perhaps should have been considered, but the performers manage to strike more of a balance by the third song, so possibly it's just teething troubles.

McConville and Jacobs deliver a touching rendition of Drop The Ball, where the band provide very understated accompaniment. Apart from a few keyboard chords and plucks of the guitar, here it's all about the vocals, allowing the two singers to really shine and for Okoh's lyrics to stand out. Throughout the hour, musical director Timothy Muller leads Alex Karski on guitar and Ollie Tumner on drums, the trio always seeming to enjoy themselves, which is always infectious when it starts with the band. There may be important issues touched on, but we always have a good time.

Even though the piece isn't that long, Okoh manages to flesh out his five protagonists and explain their different motivations well. We understand Brigitta's desire to break away and return to a more 'normal' life; conversely we can see David becoming closer and closer to the cause. Although Tariq and Sally are pretty much established from the start, we see some good character development with Brigitta and David.

This is a deeply ambitious new piece of work, which isn't perfect, but demonstrates a huge amount of talent. Okoh's work is definitely to be encouraged - with no sign of Emma Trow in the Camden Fringe this year, it's heartening to see another young composer take up the challenge of writing a brand new musical and really pouring emotion and wit into the production, rather than just schmaltz and the same one chord over and over again. With only a few tweaks, this could be an excellent show and it deserves a bigger audience than a mere three-day run will attract, so I'd like to see Scandinavian Heart beat again.

Scandinavian Heart opened on 22nd August and runs until 24th August 2014 at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Highgate (Northern)



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