In 1992, director Andrew Wright saw Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Moby Dick! The Musical as student in Oxford. Even after its subsequent West End flop, something about the show stuck with Wright all these years later. Maybe it was one of the soaring ensemble numbers, or maybe it was the plethora of dick jokes. Either way, this innuendo-laden, musical within a musical is an aggressively loud revival with few redeeming qualities. Dug up after nearly 25 years of obscurity, this show with a barely-there book and unfunny gags ought to have stayed in the archives of theatre history.
When St Godley’s Academy for Girls runs the risk of closing after a damning Ofsted inspection, the students and staff rally together to raise money and support for the school (as if that somehow changes the inspection results). Bookended by short school scenes, most of the story takes place within the performance of the musical that the geeky student playing Ishmael (Rachel Anne Rayham) wrote.
The school play has no budget, so PE equipment gets a starring role as set and props, and their uniforms are costume with a few accessories. The line between the school girl characters and the Moby Dick characters is thin and porous, and the story hinges on the “it’s so bad it’s good” concept. The problem is that the script is just bad. There’s not much to it at all, and though there are some cracking tunes, the lyrics aren’t nuanced enough to smoothly progress the plot on their own. The gags are constant, massively inappropriate and unfunny.
Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden’s music, typical of large-scale late 80s and early 90s musicals, can be quite stirring. The first act finale is particularly good and Wright stages it well, though most of the show is approached with a scale and volume suitable for a West End house. All potential for subtlety is ignored, and even though the energy cannot be faulted, the entire production can be summed up as needlessly excessive.
There are some fantastic singers in the cast. Laura Mansell as Starbuck has one of the most powerful belts in small-scale musical theatre, and Anton Stephans (headmistress and Captain Ahab) has strength and presence even though his performance is otherwise more appropriate for pantomime. Rayham’s Ishmael is tenacious and spunky.
The beauty of fringe musical theatre is that it doesn’t have to be over the top. Wright tries to compensate for the book with energy, but that approach is too much for an intimate venue. He has some great talent in the cast, but the choice of show combined with the performance style makes for an exhausting evening.
Moby Dick! The Musical runs through 12 November.
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