Music: Yiannis Koutsakos
Lyrics: Yiannis Koutsakos and James Oban
Book: James Rottger
Additional Lyrics: James Rottger and Maia Henry
Director: Max Reynolds
Reviewer: Ian Foster
A Britney Spears jukebox musical with Marti Pellow as Kevin Federline and Michael Ball as Britney’s mum? Stranger things have happened on a West End stage but this is the (as yet fictional) set-up for Ushers: The Front of House Musical which follows the hope and dreams and frustrations and failures of a front of house team on a busy night at a West End theatre. And naturally it is playing at a fringe theatre, London’s newest in the form of The Hope Theatre, perched atop The Hope and Anchor pub on Upper Street and the only such theatre to be committed exclusively to new writing.
And with Ushers, it has alighted on something of a little delight. The story may be slight but it manages to pack a lot in in covering the travails of four long-standing ushers, a newcomer into their ranks and their overwrought supervisor. The new girl and the hot guy immediately fancy each other, the cute gay couple are struggling with one of their’s decision to take an acting job in Austria, another girl can’t keep from tweeting pictures of the cast and the supervisor has gone power-mad at the prospect of schmoozing with a major new potential investor.
And as these mini-dramas play out, James Rottger’s book makes light-hearted yet astute observations about the theatre industry in all its warts and all glory, poking fun at ice-cream prices, officious critics, pesky bloggers, frustrated actors, merchandise-obsessed middle managers and wannabe stars. It is frequently laugh out loud funny (although the West End Whingers probably deserve a credit for having their most famous pun nicked). And Yiannis Koutsakos’ score is tunefully essayed on Michael Riley’s keys, some very solid songwriting suggesting an interesting future for this creative team.
Not everything works – the frequent diversions into a management-style presentation quickly become tiresome and don’t add enough of anything to warrant breaking up the narrative as they do. And though this is a brand new space, director Max Reynolds’ blocking is poorly done given the configuration of the seating, whole swathes of the action completely ignore the fact that it isn’t an end-on production. When he does remember this, particularly in the sequences that open and close the show, the potential for both show and venue really does come alive though.
The cast of six are appealingly strong – Liam Ross-Mills and Will Jennings are sweet as the bickering gays, Ross-Mills getting an excellent powerhouse number to close the first act. Chloë Brooks’ über-fan is a vibrant delight and Abigail Carter-Simpson, as the instantly smitten Lucy, reveals a beautifully honeyed voice which made me long to hear her sing more. So a cosy alternative for those suffering a festive overload, a confident piece of new musical writing, and something to make you think about exactly who you buy your next programme from.