Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Better Than Sex - the Musical

Music by Mate Bella, lyrics by Attila Galambos, original book by Robert B Suda, English book and lyrics translated by Jason Charles, E.P. Crammes & Gyorgy Fekete
Courtyard Theatre, Hoxton
(2010)

Production photo

'Power is Sexy' runs the line below the title of this madcap musical comedy which gets its London premiere before opening at the Pinceszínház in Budapest next month. That might suggest some sort of political satire on the operation of power. At first that seems to be what the writers are aiming for: this is a play that takes its central idea from the Gunpowder Plot, the foiling of which we yearly celebrate on Guy Fawke's Night It is here seen as a royal scheme by James I (and VI) to boost his popularity with his people.

Opening in darkness with a thundery night and pouring rain through which we hear the familiar tolling of Big Ben we are plunged immediately into a combination of the seventeenth century and the twenty-first. It is Barry's gothic Palace of Westminster that is going to be blown up, there are reference back to Richard Nixon and an Iron Lady, everyone has mobile phones and fashions are modern with a few Jacobean touches as Vivienne Westwood might have added them, but William Shakespeare and the Bible translators of the Authorised Version write the royal speeches and the date is 1605. This James Stuart is a camp but rather dishy black man (Timi Charles-Fadipe), bare-chested beneath open gilet and bling but with historical verisimilitude in a passing suggestion that he should use a mouthwash and that he is definitely gay.

The king's side-kick and political advisor is the transvestite Lady Domina (Adam Ganne) also his sometime bedfellow. A Lord and Lady Mammon (Colin Appleby and Olivia Simpson) represent the opposition to the king, and a subplot involving Mammon and high class whore Hootie van Ficken (Simpson doubling) whose past popularity with Hitler's Nazis further confuses history. That, of course, has echoes of Jonson's Jacobean play The Alchemist. Add a ringleted Shylock (Appleby again) and a couple of Lady Domina's servants: lesbian Servina (Barbara Zemper) and a gay-for-pay grotesque butler (Duncan Wilkins) to stir things further - oh, and very briefly Guy Fawkes himself - and all is set for a very funny evening. Except that, though responding to the occasional zany moment, I wasn't exactly convulsed.

There were clearly others who thought otherwise. Two parties in the front rows found it hilarious throughout and applauded wildly. Why didn't all the hard work and energy on display work for me? Partly, I think, because the sound balance made it difficult to follow the lyrics, swamped by a backing track. I moved from the front to the back of the theatre after the interval. It was slightly better further from the loudspeakers but often I still had difficulty, especially if more than one person was singing. The actors are not helped that the design sets the scene using projections (by Victor Palfi), some of them animated. Fine in themselves, but they are front projected so hit the actors' bodies, sometimes hiding their faces beneath black stripes and patterns. Mostly my problem was that the show was not making any real point. In one scene servant Servina tells us 'It's going to be a long night.' At that moment she makes you feel complicit but at two hours with no clear focus it had began to feel too long.

If this is satire what are its targets? In fact, I think the creators just want to have fun, and I would plump for that, but it needs to be clearer and sharper. There is too much indulgence in what they must think is funnier and more clever than actually comes over. The music, if it could be held down to allow the singers to be understood, is pleasantly lively, though there were no tunes I went home humming. This puts most emphasis on book and lyrics. They need to be more than coyly shocking. The show has little dance element and what there is needs disciplining.

However, the Budapest Pinceszínház has, I believe, a reputation for cabaret and this is perhaps best seen not so much as a satirical musical comedy but as a much camper form of entertainment that given a bit of tightening might turn into a hoot.

At the Courtyard Theatre until 29th August 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton