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The Sam Neill Experience: A Dance Musical
2 Northdown
11th August 2018

★★☆☆☆

Publicity image for The Sam Neill Experience

Photography provided by the Camden Fringe

They say never meet your heroes, and perhaps it's for the best that the real Sam Neill doesn't make an appearance for Gregory Akerman and Ian Bowkett's collaboration, The Sam Neill Experience: A Dance Musical. Apparently, he's a thoroughly nice bloke and non-litigious, but I'm not really sure how anyone would feel if they had a show like this written about them and actually saw it performed live. I suppose though, apart from the slur on Neill's dancing abilities (which admittedly he doesn't seem all that bothered about), this downright bizarre show does contain an inherent advertisement for his current business venture. Never mind a certain energy drink giving you wings, if there's one coherent message we take away from The Sam Neill Experience, it's that Two Paddocks wine must be something special.

Of course, behind all the neon high kicks and silliness, there is a point to the show (no, really). Just the other day, I listened to an actor complain to me about how it was getting harder and harder to bag a role these days unless you had something a bit 'extra' about you. Stage fighting skills, another language... or the ability to sing and dance. Which it transpires, are abilities that Sam Neill (the character) is lacking. Shouldn't it be enough to just be very good at one thing to succeed in showbiz? That's the main question that the company explore - the secondary question being is it ever OK to do things that will give the RSPCA nightmares if the result is magic powers all round? (Do note, no real animals were harmed in this production.)

For all the production's flaws (and we'll get to those in a bit), there are some deliciously fringe-y choices by Akerman and Bowkett. The use of black umbrellas, strawberry laces and multicoloured balloons is fairly low budget, but doesn't compromise at all on their madcap vision, with these props delivering a powerful, visceral impact. The company have done an admirable job of winning support from the real Neill, or at least, convincing him they're harmless and not to sue them. However, getting him to star in this show was always going to be an ambitious reach. For one thing, he lives on the other side of the world where he makes wine these days. For another, he's a freakin' Hollywood actor. Casting Naomi Gray in the role of Sam makes perfect sense - if you can't get the actual actor or a similar looking stand-in, you may as well go completely the other way and cast someone who doesn't look like the original character at all.

Gray obviously is a woman playing a man - there's no attempt to scale back her femininity, leaving her long hair to flow freely and her makeup natural yet nonetheless highlighting her delicate features. Although her wardrobe echoes Neill's own from Jurassic Park, that's where the visual similarity stops. The best part of her performance is you never question why she's in the role until afterwards when you're trying to make sense of the show and analyse it (and let's face it, only critics ever deconstruct a show to this level) - simply put, she's a very good comic actress. It's important to enjoy yourself with this genre and as she bounds on and off the intimate stage, we can see Gray is having a ball.

Although all of the performers have at least a few ropey moments with the vocals, Victoria Howell and Gemma-Marie Everest probably fare the worst, with a good few out of tune renditions as the Disco Doctor and well, all of the townspeople, respectively. Forced couple Kimberley (Michaela Leslie) and Jayne (Vanessa Mayfield) are also inconsistent. However, when Mayfield has a good moment, she has a really good moment. Towards the end, her vocals are strong and her flair for movement is obvious. Whilst she may be a townsperson in Boogieville, a conurbation with an obvious theme, her dance skills feel underutilised. Mayfield is an agile enough dancer for it to be worth rewriting the script purely to showcase more of her moves.

It's puzzling as to why the vocals are so uneven. We hear the performers get it very right sometimes, so they're clearly capable of hitting the notes. The last time I was this baffled was when I saw some well-known vocal heavyweights lose it in Fashion Victim the Musical, which proved that just because someone can sing, doesn't mean you'll hear that demonstrated on the night. Bowkett's melodies aren't exactly challenging. Is it his and Akerman's direction? The venue? I mean, this was never designed to house musicals - for anyone else with an unsettling feeling of deja vu walking into 2 Northdown, this used to be the home of the Invisible Dot, a comedy club rather than a musical theatre venue. Is there something about the acoustics in the space that throws them? We find ourselves grasping to try to explain the inconsistency. There are moments when this is a four-star show and others when it's a one-star.

It's frustrating not being able to give a higher star rating when there are so many imaginative and intelligent touches from the creative team, and when there is untapped talent that we recognise and want to encourage. However, ultimately, this is a musical where the vocals don't always make the cut and to give it a higher recommendation would be unfair to all the musical productions where to be blunt, the singing is always in tune. There's a lot to like about this show and equally, a lot of room for improvement.

Utterly bewildering but undeniably exuberant and irreverent, The Sam Neil Experience is certainly an experience. As to whether it's one you'll enjoy, that's hard to say. It's probably better with wine though, and the tiny venue does have a tiny bar. Whilst I'm not sure they have any Two Paddocks in stock (sorry), if you approach this in the good-natured spirit in which it's intended, there are certainly some laughs to be had.

The Sam Neill Experience: A Dance Musical opened on 11th August and runs until 13th August 2018 at 2 Northdown, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: King's Cross St. Pancras (Victoria, Piccadilly, Northern, Circle, Metropolitan, Hammersmith)



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