Certainly dark and daring, but significantly falls over its own ambition in its execution.
Grim is lonely. As she traverses the world taking the souls of those who die, she is mystified by human emotions. Therefore, in order to learn more about what makes mortals tick, she decides to become a student at an English school. However, there she meets Cupid. As he and Grim fall for each other, it creates a whole netherworld of problems, not the mention flaming the ire and superstition of the school’s pupils.
Best-selling novelist and newspaper columnist, Fiona O’Malley, turns her efforts once more to musical theatre after the success of her previous show, The Daily Fail: The Musical. Unfortunately, sinking her teeth into a Gothic fairytale does not yield the same level of results. The plot rattles along, quick, improbable and too shallow even for a bedtime story. Nothing is ever fully explained or expanded, such as Cupid’s presence at the school and the logic behind his actions to be with Grim. The audience are just fed everything on face value and are expected to take it. Other narrative devices lead nowhere or fizzle out unsatisfactory. We just steam through full-speed, skimming the surface of what feels like could have been a properly paced and thought out musical. There’s potentially enough material here to last an entire full-length show. Instead, we get a quick fumble of around 90 minutes (including interval).
Furthermore, at one point I was left wondering who the show’s intended audience are as parts of it felt so much like a family-friendly show/school production. Dialogue is stilted and basic to the point of pantomime. If it weren’t for the overtures to euthanasia and characters donned in black hoods, whilst others dropped like flies, I felt I should have been accompanied by a child and dishing out pick ‘n’ mix to those sat next to me.
However, you can’t fault O’Malley for being bold in her remit. Whilst what she’s written completely hasn’t worked in practise, throughout you can peer a little into what she was setting out to achieve: a romantic and slick new musical for generation Twilight. It’s just a shame her earnest ambition has nowhere near paid off in that she’s unable to come up with the panache and substance for this to have been a successful venture.
Music and Lyrics
The lyrics are dreadful. It’s pretty much a sing-what-you-see-but-make-sure-it-rhymes approach. It’s completely devoid of any poetry or inventive language, let alone any wit and intelligence, making the songs a real trial to sit through. If you’re not bored, you’re wincing at clumsy couplets. O’Malley absolutely needs to employ a proper lyricist.
Musically, composer Joseph Alexander produces an incredibly rich and full orchestral score, which complex choral writing to match, produced using some very high quality samples. He riffs very comfortably somewhere between Danny Elfman and Camille Saints-Saens, effortlessly giving the show the dark fairytale vibe that it aims for. Unfortunately the majority of the music is just too unwieldy. It’s technically very well put together, with things like the by-the-book quartet of previous numbers that come together to cumulate in the Act I finale. But there are seldom any tunes or motifs that have a hook. It meanders around a vague musical theme and offers little with any meat on to enjoy. The whole thing feels more like one long recitative, as if Tim Burton had hurriedly scribbled out an opera. It’s a shame, because one song, “I Wished For Someone Like You”, is the only song in the entire production that feels like a song from a musical: lilting, sweet, and catchy.
Direction and Production
Anna Driftmier’s set might look sparse, but it leaves plenty of room for the large cast to go about their business. It’s design is simple yet effective: nothing but a painted gauze tab centre stage. Her imposing Gothic wrought-iron gates of the school is all the show really needs, with nothing else but props and Jack Weir’s lighting design plotting out the scene and atmosphere. So much more could have been done on the generous stage of the Charing Cross Theatre, but it’s great to have a production team who know that it’s best to just do what is needed rather than what’s possible.
On the other hand, within the space afforded by Driftmier, director Adam Wollerton and choreographers Adam Jay-Price and Sam Lathwood manage to make the stage feel cramped and crowded. Wollerton constantly seems to want to use as much space as possible, making the full 20+ cast vie for space. Everything else is squished downstage. There’s no use of depth here or appreciation of the space: it’s very basic direction without flair or ingenuity.
This isn’t helped by the choreography. All the actions and moves are too big and over the top. As well as making the show look like a school disco dancing troupe, the gestures employed are so grandiose that it sometimes forces some of the non-dancing actors to hug the edges of the set for fear of getting smacked in the face by a pair of errant jazz hands or over enthusiastic high kick. It, like a lot else in this production, lacks any thought or refinement; it’s brazen and hyperactive with little art or consideration.
The only cast member that’s worth mentioning is Roseanna Christoforou in the show’s titular role. Even thought she’s not given much to go on from the text, she’s makes the very best of what’s she’s been handed. She effortlessly portrays Grim’s steely inertia and endearing ignorance of human world foibles without managing to make Grim come across two dimensional. Ironically, she feels the most human out of all the cast. What’s more, Christoforou has a fantastic voice which she still manages to make shine through the lack-lustre score, pricking up you ears to her presence whenever she sings.
As unsatisfying as this show is, there are still flits here and there of the DNA of something that could be so much better. It’s certainly bold, original, and ambitious: O’Malley has an idea born from an imagination that could have struck gold, and Alexander demonstrates that he’s a talented orchestrator and composer who can write at least one good tune. But in execution, it dies on stage along with several of the characters. Unless you really want to see this, Grim: A New Musical lives up to its moniker.
Grim: A New Musical plays at the Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2N 6NL, until 30 August 2014. Tickets are £10 – £19.50. To book, visit www.charingcrosstheatre.co.uk.