A musical mystery – Edwin Drood


This weekend, I saw a most fascinating musical in a theatre which can only be described as quaint. The Theatre Royal, Margate, is a beautiful building, which feels like a proper old theatre, with a balcony, boxes, pillars and intricate decoration adorning many of the available surfaces. The curtain is a deep red and both stage and auditorium are raked, which tends to equal excellent sight-lines for all (although according to one cast member it also leads to muscular pains and cramps for the performers who have to walk and dance on a strange angle).

The musical itself was The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on Dickens’ last, unfinished, work. Creating a musical based on a story without an ending is obviously a challenge, and Rupert Holmes (who wrote book, music and lyrics) came up with an ingenious solution – let the audience decide. As soon as proceedings reach the point where Dickens “laid down his pen for the final time”, the actors stop the story and the rest of the evening is up to the audience. They have to vote on the identity of a detective in disguise, work out who killed the title character and, in order to furnish a good old happy ending, create a pair of lovers (the latter choice being entirely the result of audience whim, as there is no real evidence for any pairing, whereas you can just about manage to invent a justification in the text for most of the potential detectives and murderers). As this was an amateur production, though, the choices were largely dictated by which characters had the most friends in the audience for any given performance.

Presented in a music hall style, there are moments when the audience is encouraged (nay, practically forced) too boo the villain and join in with one of the songs. It takes a while for the audience to warm up to this, or at least it took us a while, but it does mean that the audience participation in the choice of ending was a more organic part of the show, feeling strangely normal by that point. The music hall style also allowed for a few songs which had nothing whatsoever to do with the Dickensian plot, by presenting it as a performance by a successful music hall company. The staging of this production reinforced this, with each principal performer taking a bow when introduced, then returning to the exact stance they were in moments before, which was often very funny. It also allows for overplaying, scripted diva tantrums and deliberately bad accents. All of which could be irritating, but work in context. The style of the piece and performance were enhanced by the theatre, which is old enough to have been host to the sort of music hall we were experiencing and still maintained the ornamentation and friendliness that one would expect of such a place.

The songs are not going to become favourites of mine, even if I spend the £40 or more that a second-hand copy of the original cast recording would require in order to hear them repeatedly – it has gone out of print (both the ‘complete’ version, with all the different endings, and the reduced version) and is a relatively sought-after collectors item in certain circles. I was quite taken with ‘Don’t Quite While You’re Ahead’ (irritatingly catchy) and the patter song ‘Both Sides of the Coin’, as well as being impressed by the writing and performance of ‘No Good Can Come From Bad’, a piece which involves most of the principals at Christmas dinner, showing the various tensions and undercurrents which may or may not be responsible for the death or disappearance of Edwin Drood.

The production benefited from strong direction and musical direction, with an impressive orchestra which was of higher than normal quality for a non-professional production. The performers ranged from adequate to very good, with no horribly embarrassing performances (and believe me, I’ve seen plenty of those, both professional and amateur). The Chairman of the Music Hall Royale was portrayed by a professional, but the rest of the cast was composed of local people, most of them being completely unknown to me. I was mostly impressed by members of the supporting cast. I had gone largely in order to see one of my friends perform the role of Neville, and he did not disappoint. I also enjoyed the performances offered by the lady playing Princess Puffer, and the gentlemen in the role of the Reverend Crisparkle and Durdles. Jasper, the most-booed villain of the piece, did not really do it for me, not being quite nasty enough for my liking. Drood herself (yes, herself) was excellent in terms of acting and moving, but weaker vocally in the slower numbers. The character of Rosa annoyed me as a typically wet Dickensian love interest, so I probably did not give the actress portraying her a chance to impress me.

The lighting was effective, including liberal use of the oft-neglected footlights, and the set was a simple affair of three movable screens. The production was, however, let down by the sound. Many of the singers disappeared behind the orchestra, making me wonder whether their radio mics were at all effective or whether they simply were not singing strongly enough for the mics to pick up since all the technology can do is enhance what it is given. It was frustrating to have to strain to work out what our chosen detective and murderer were singing about, particularly when other soloists had been perfectly audible earlier on in proceedings. Sound is a very difficult thing to get right (I also had major issues with the sound in a production of Gypsy two days earlier) and is not something I have any skill with, but it is extraordinarily important to the experience of seeing a show.

It was a most enjoyable evening, and I would recommend catching any performance of the show which may crop up. It is certainly unusual, but the concept and script offer a lot of fun. I was even heard to laugh out loud several times, which has to be a good thing. The production was not perfect by any means (note that I have not mentioned choreography…), but it was a strong one with creditable performances. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is well worth investigating.

  1. Saw that on Broadway back in the 80s and enjoyed it!

  1. June 2nd, 2012

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