Theatre Review: Best of Friends (Landor Theatre, London)

Aidan O'Neill as Mike Chariot. Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Aidan O’Neill as Mike Chariot. Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Rating: ***

Best of Friends was almost the new musical that never happened. Originally billed to go on at Arts Theatre last year as The Golden Voice, with a cast of 20+ and none other than Darren Day in the lead, the production crumbled due to fraud. However, where there’s a will there’s a way, and a year later it’s now up and running at the Landor Theatre, albeit as a much smaller show.

Jim (Nick Fogarty) and Mike (Aidan O’Neill) have started a band at their local youth club. But, lusting for fame and fortune, Mike abandons his musical partner to appear on TV talent show, “The Face & The Voice”. But success isn’t quite what Mike expects. 20 years on, he returns from obscurity to set up a music school, which indirectly reunites him with Jim. But Jim’s life has seen him plunge into London’s criminal underground. Is this a chance for Mike’s redemption or Jim’s revenge? And about the big secret his estranged ex-lover Natalie (Rosie Glossop) has kept from him?

Production

If you didn’t know that this was supposed to be a bigger off-West End show, you certainly wouldn’t have thought it as it doesn’t look at all out of place on the fringe. The set does well to turn the cosy space at the Landor into the grimy backstage of some forsaken gig-venue, with scruffy graffiti scribbled across the black back wall. A clutter of what seem like ordinary flight boxes are actually custom bits of flexible and mobile set pieces which enable director Robert McWhir to prevent the show from being static and visually bland, despite concessions being made by way of the set. Richard Lambert’s lighting design also adds surprising injections of colour and timbre despite the stage’s decidedly monochrome look.

There are some moments of the show that you can imagine working well as the all singing and dancing production it had originally planned to be. But McWhir, throughout, ensures that nothing actually feels reduced, missing, or removed.

However, Maximilien Spielbichler’s video designs, displayed on several computer screens scattered around the stage, seem to distract rather than add. This is especially true when a couple of the animations don’t loop as smoothly as they should, making them look cheaper than they probably are. In other places, the animated graphics have little impact on a scene; the number of screens not quite being able to make up for their lack of scale like those you see on real life TV talent shows. Because of this, these ultimately feel unnecessary and out of place, except for one well-placed reel of fake news broadcasts, which could probably been done just as well as fake radio broadcasts.

Nick Fogarty (left) and Aidan O'Neill (right). Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Nick Fogarty (left) and Aidan O’Neill (right). Photograph: Matt Cocklin LRPS

Music and Book

Fogarty has certainly penned some rather notable numbers in this musical. There are several songs that pack a punch, such as “Stay”, which Sarah Goggin uses as a vehicle to apex her already strong performance. However, there are other songs where you feel Fogarty doesn’t quite have as much heart in them compared to the others, and they end up feeling transient as the scenes they’re in.

Also, as first and foremost a musician, Fogarty certainly isn’t much of a book writer. The character dialogue is consistently clumsy and unconvincing, and the narrative suffers not only from uneven pacing, but a depth that’s as shallow and empty as the industry it’s trying to send up. However, the rivalry between Jim and Mike, and 19 year-old hangover of his relationship with Natalie, has enough intrigue and drama to stop it from being forgettable, even if it’s a story many may have seen before.

Cast

The decision to have Fogarty have a finger in yet another pie by playing the villain of the piece, is an ill-judged one. Whilst this may well be as a result of the cuts the show has had to make, it’s difficult to feel intimidated by someone who comes across more Dyck Van Dyke than Grant Mitchell. This robs the danger and urgency his character’s spite places our hero in, which could have really lifted the writing otherwise.

Thankfully the rest of the cast hold the show together well. But with the writing and dialogue not being top-notch, the cast struggle to shine through, though they clearly try hard to give volume to a flat text. Despite O’Neill’s competent and lovable performance as the lead, it’s the supporting ladies that steal the show. Glossop finds moments to showcase the power of her spectacular voice, whilst Goggin gives perhaps the most sweet and sincere performance of the entire cast.

Verdict

Even though not ground-breaking, as a whole, Best of Friends is solid enough to hold your attention and keep you more than entertained, due to enough head-bobbing and rock-steady songs and several star turns. It’s great to see that the tenacity of Fogarty and the creative team prevail despite all that has happened, paying off with this decent fringe musical. Yes, it could be, and might have been, much better. But that by no means means that this reduction should be dismissed because of this. Buckle in, and rock out.

Best of Friends plays at the Landor Theatre, London, SW9 9PH, until 10th May 2014. Tickets are £19. To book visit www.landortheatre.co.uk.

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