Ian McFarlane: Betwixt! The Musical

King's Head Theatre

Islington, London, 22 May 2008 4 stars

Betwixt!

If great things come in small packages, so too do great musicals sometimes play in little theatres.

There's nothing quite like experiencing the honesty of a show performed in a fringe venue such as the King's Head in Islington, and Ian McFarlane's new musical, Betwixt!, certainly benefits from the intimacy of the studio space.

The sets and costumes may be redolent of a shoestring budget, some of the cast may not be the cream of the crop, the musical accompaniment requires a lot more refinement and the show itself will benefit from further rewriting.

But the infectiousness of the performance and the quality of so much of the material makes up for the flaws, and if the show gets the West End transfer that it deserves, I've no doubt that greater funds and the chance to revise the content will make it a winner.

The show verges between a fantasy adventure and a witty adult comedy. Bailey Howard, a fantasy novelist, is suffering from writer's block and can't get his latest book started. His girlfriend moves out and in her place comes a camp new flatmate, Cooper Fitzgerald, who transports Bailey to a fantastical world in which nothing is as it seems. Two hours later, having witnessed the pair's journey around the mystical world of Taravatania, we see Howard at the book launch, having turned their adventures into his novel.

It's incredible fun to witness the crazy situations the friends encounter on their travels and, at its best, the show is immensely entertaining – musical theatre at its most charming and witty, indeed. However, at the moment there is far too much of the fantasy element for my taste, and not enough all-out comedy. One doesn't come to a show like this to get too hung up on the minutiae of a galaxy-bending plot, but, like many a musical before it, the script has its longueurs in the second act. For instance, one strand of the story involves the switching over of Prince Haydn of Taravatania with Haydn Prince of daytime television, both played by the same actor. It's rather difficult either to care about these characters or to engage with their plights, and it's not because the actor playing them is in any way flawed, simply that it's all too much to take at once.

The plot thickens to the point of incomprehensibility in one or two places – sometimes because unnecessary incidental music (which should be completely cut) drowns out the dialogue, and sometimes because the whole show is the product of an extraordinarily fertile imagination which needs to be reined in a little more. If the story could be simplified, with a lot more of the scatological and sexual humour which raised the largest laughs from the audience at this performance, and fewer characters and subplots, the show would carry us with it even more excitingly and smoothly than it does now.

A greater control of the musical material would also help. Without doubt, the catchiness and invention of the score even in its current state is enough of a reason to see the show. The lively opening number, 'The Moment I've Been Waiting For', drives us straight into the main protagonist's central predicament with verve, while the sophisticated chromatic inflections and emotive word-setting of 'Eyes of a Child' denote a composer with a special talent for building the arch of a song with limpid beauty. (To hear this song, visit YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BUcbzi2o4QQ.) However, at the moment there is just too much music in the piece, and not all of it pulls its weight. 'The Paparazzi Rag' veers dangerously close in concept to 'We Both Reached For the Gun' from Chicago, and since it does nothing to heighten the plot, it could be removed without compromising the show in any way. It also lacks a good first-act finale, with 'Bump and Grind' not pulling its weight due to overly dense contrapuntal vocal parts which are not performed with sufficient clarity or accuracy by the ensemble.

Betwixt!In fact, this problem with the vocal arrangements and their execution was apparent from the outset, as was the over-dominance of the three-piece band and an inclination to drive the music as fast as possible at the expense of the lyrics registering with the audience. I also feel that the music needs more time to breathe in places, thereby giving the spectators opportunity to reflect. Specifically, more attention should be paid to the 'lyric moment', with extra verses and modulations added even to the near-perfect 'Eyes of a Child' so that we can be touched more deeply by the characters' emotions. The very end of the show, too, ought to be rousing rather than thinning the texture down to one voice at the last. By extending what's already there and removing a couple of the weaker numbers, the score could not merely be life-affirming on the stage but very attractive on record as well.

Not content with writing the book, music and lyrics, Ian McFarlane himself takes the part of the secondary male lead, Cooper Fitzgerald, and reveals as strong an instinct for performing theatre as he does for creating it. Although he delivers the comedy with flair, the flamboyance of his character is never overplayed and one can sense how deeply he feels and cares about his own music when he performs it. Stephen Fletcher's sincerity in the part of Bailey Howard makes him the core of the ensemble around which the others revolve, augmented by a sweet singing voice and strong stage presence. Having voted every week for Abi Finley when she was a finalist on the BBC's How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? programme, I am delighted to see her star as Miranda, Bailey's love interest, and she exudes class in both her singing and acting. Ross Aldred's adaptability in various roles renders him indispensable to the show, and of the rest, only Amanda Symonds' over-the-top performance as Langwidere, the evil enchantress, seems seriously incongruent with the others in the cast, who generally work hard to make the material cohere.

If at times Betwixt seems reminiscent of The Drowsy Chaperone in concept, The Producers in mood and Into the Woods in style, then it's a good indication of the broad range of people the show will appeal to. Although it will no doubt become a staple of the West End in the future, the special atmosphere of the King's Head will be hard to replace, so I encourage anyone with an interest in musical theatre to catch it now.

By Dominic McHugh

Read more at http://www.betwixtthemusical.com/

Previous reviews of musical theatre:
Gypsy on Broadway with Patti Lupone
Funny Girl at the Chichester Festival
Kismet at ENO
On the Town at ENO