views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
7th March 2014

★★★★★

Craig Berry, Michelle LaFortune, Sarah Kennedy and Paul Harwood as Superman, Lois Lane, Sydney and Max

Photography © PNDPhotography

He may be the Man of Steel, impervious to harm, but there's one thing we can add next to Kryptonite and magic as one of his weaknesses - and that's the critics. As when the boy scout battled Doomsday and "died" in a double KO, Superman in his musical form had a hard time of it. Sure, the 1966 piece got a few Tony nods, but closed after just 129 performances and, if it was being played straight, it's not hard to see why. Go on, pop on to YouTube and have a look at some other amateur productions and you'll see what I mean. I'll wait... Not that great, is it? It's also easy to see why this is the UK première - I frankly wouldn't want to touch it either. Product of its time is an understatement. But thankfully for us punters, neither director Randy Smartnick nor musical director Aaron Clingham are me.

I'll admit to a certain bias here. I love Superman in all of his forms - Zack Snyder's version notwithstanding. Okay, he's no Green Arrow (the proper one with the goatee, not the one currently on TV), but Big Blue simply is the superhero archetype. Knowing both his lofty place in pop culture, and the play by reputation, made me fear for the sanity of everyone involved in All Star Productions. But, as ever, they've managed to defy expectations and navigate the choppy waters of taste to deliver something which manages to be, in no particular order, Action Comics, pantomime, The Producers, The Rocky Horror Show, Adam West's Batman and a U-rated John Waters production. It's uncynically knowing, camp but reverent, jolly silly and, most of all, fun, perfectly crystallising the character at the time.

Paul Harwood and the ensemble as Max and his girls

Photography © David Ovenden

And at the front and centre of this - literally - is Craig Berry as Superman/Clark Kent. A little George Reeves, a lot Patrick Warburton, a little Superman-as-drawn-by-Tony-Harris (seriously, Google it, I'll wait again...) it's an utter powerhouse of a performance as both Clark and Supes. A confident pose, twinkle in his eye and a lot of eyebrow work shifts to a hunched, jittery nerd. But neither of these seems like an act, rather two halves of the same person. And boy, can he sing. In fact, Benjamin Newsome has done it again with the casting, simply not putting a foot wrong. Rather predictably both Clingham and his command of the talented musicians are also perfect.

So what of his enemy? Is it Lex Luthor? Brainiac? Zod? All of those heavy hitters were about and rather popular by '66, so it's fair to assume they'd be included. But, no. What we do get is the maniacal, screechy, snivelling nutty professor in the shape of Sedgwick (a barnstorming, cackling, hyperventilating Matthew Ibbotson). He pretty much fills the role of Lex, attempting time after time to kill or discredit Superman, working apart from, and then together with Daily Planet columnist Max (Paul Harwood) who attempts to uncover Supes' secret identity.

The final bunch of villains - and remember, guys, this was the 60s - are the Ling Family (Thomas Widdop, Susie Porter, Alexander Bartles, Jade Nelson and headed by Joseph Murray as Father Ling). Yeah. The Ling Family. Yeah. They're Chinese acrobats, annoyed because no one wants to see them because Superman has captured the imagination of the public. Yeah. But what could be an utter car-crash is transformed by the tongue-in-cheek nature towards mocking the attitudes of the time, rather than indulging them. It helps, of course, that there's little yellowface going on - other than Murray going so far as to lampoon the issue - and that they are all fantastic gymnasts.

Matthew Ibbotson as Sedgwick

Photography © David Ovenden

This lampoonery pervades the entire piece, with Smartnick giving it the feel of a moving comic as the cast occasionally pose stock-still as if they are panels in the titular character's book - leading to a nice nod to Action Comics #1. Weedy lab assistant Jim (Charlie Vose) excels in this, as does Michelle LaFortune as Lois. Who, incidentally, is exactly the hard-nosed yet simpering reporter seen in Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane, a comic which was soaring in popularity in the period in which this was written.

There are some problems, used in the loosest sense possible. David Newman and Robert Benton's book is twee and, if not for Smartnick, would be far too earnest. Lee Adams' lyrics are less so, allowing fantastic performer/singers such as Sarah Kennedy (as Max and Clark's love interest Sydney) free rein to ramp it up to eleven during the numbers. But save one or two - Revenge, You've Got Possibilities - these are largely forgettable. Luckily, the sheer lunacy and the bonhomie that fosters in the audience means this isn't an issue. A couple of hiccups, such as Lois losing her necklace, scenery becoming unstuck and Superman failing to soar, simply added to the anarchic, feelgood atmosphere.

A child of the 70s, the Rocky Horror Show began life in a theatre above a pub, before it became a classic, hosting such heavyweights as David Bedella. If other directors get a whiff of what All Star Productions are doing here, there's no doubt this could be the beginning of a resurgence of the musical. But while I could see it being done bigger in the West End, I can't see it being done better. You'll believe a man can be wry.

It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman ran from 4th to 22nd March 2014 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre. It transfers to Leicester Square Theatre from 10th to 21st Feburary 2015.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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