Music by Chris Egan, book and lyrics by Ed Curtis and Guy Jones
Archerwest Ltd & Water Babies Musical UK Ltd
From 24 April 2014 to 17 May 2014
Review by Andy Plaice
Musical theatre is notoriously difficult to get right, especially when it’s new work. Trying to predict a hit isn’t easy either, and if we needed a reminder then two West End productions from theatrical legends have already closed early this year: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Stephen Ward kept afloat for just four months while his old writing partner Tim Rice pulled the plug on From Here to Eternity after six months.
And so to Water Babies, given its world première in Leicester by producers Peter Shaw and Joanna Cecil with an eye on a London opening to follow. What of its chances then?
The checklist for a musical is pretty unforgiving. Songs should be memorable, the characters engaging and the story should move us, or at least entertain. An audience must believe in characters who break out into song every five minutes. For the performers, it’s arguably a greater challenge than that presented by drama or even comedy.
But in a nutshell, story is everything.
Based on Charles Kingsley’s Victorian novel, teenager Tom (Thomas Milner) is caught up with a criminal gang and urged to escape from them by Mrs D, a fairy godmother character clearly drawn by Louise Dearman. On the run, Tom approaches the edge of a waterfall and jumps in, suddenly finding himself in an underwater world ‘peopled’ by sea creatures, villains and water babies.
Much of the plot centres around Tom’s journey from boy to man and his quest to return home to the girl he loves. Sounds like it should work, but the girl (Lauren Samuels as Ellie) is someone he met only minutes before his escape and we are meant to believe they are in love. Mmm...
Matters are not helped by the pace of their exchanges. It’s one thing playing it quick—especially light comedy—but at times the dialogue is so machine-gun-rapid it feels as if they’re aiming to catch a train rather than actually listening to what the other character wants.
Samuels is otherwise effective in the role and has the benefit of an exceptional singing voice. Milner can sing too, but his Tom lacks the likeability factor that’s essential for a leading role.
While a question mark hangs over some aspects of the show, there are no such doubts with the music. Chris Egan’s tunes are terrific, a mix of traditional showstoppers with contemporary sounds.
The songs, written with Ed Curtis and Guy Jones, are served particularly well by West End stars Dearman and Samuels, who utilise their experience from shows like Wicked and We Will Rock You. Dearman’s vocals, especially, are really quite stunning on “This World”, and when the two of them combine to sing “Waiting For You” it is one of the evening’s highlights by some distance.
Other notables include Tom Lister in his musical debut. Best known for TV soap Emmerdale, he’s a convincing ‘bad guy’ and supports a strong singing voice with an energetic, eye-catching performance as Grimes / Eel.
Also impressive is a comedy triangle from Andy Gray as the lobster Jock, Samuel Holmes playing the seahorse Terrence as a restoration fop and Tom Davey as a French swordfish Claude whose threat—"Come ’ere and zay zat"—is one of many funny moments when they are on stage.
On the technical side, the 3D hologram featuring Richard E Grant will help to sell tickets and Morgan Large’s set designs are expertly crafted, though the wow factor of a 10m waterfall is somehow lost as it looks suspiciously like a trick. (It isn’t, it’s real).
Overall, there is a lot to like with Water Babies but I wanted to love it and, on first viewing, that musical checklist is only partially complete.
The songs are certainly West End level, the script has good jokes and, in Dearman and Samuels, the show is blessed with two outstanding performers. Arguably they don’t have enough to do in a somewhat hazy story about a moody teenager who, regrettably, we don’t care enough about to worry whether he makes it home or not.
Reservations put aside, the show is far from dead in the water. With clearer storytelling and more engagement with the main character, it may just swim the Thames.