Dan Dare - The Musical

Written Tom Kelly: Music by John Miles
Customs House, South Shields
(2003)

There are - very broadly speaking - two kinds of musical: those written opurely for their entertainment value (in which category we would place, for example, Sandy Wilson's The Boyfriend) and those which have a more serious purpose, which have - to use a phrase mentioned in an after-show conversation this evening - artistic validity, among which we would undoubtedly number, for example, West Side Story.

Dan Dare - The Musical falls very firmly into the first category. It is entertainment, pure and simple. It is, as director Ray Spencer said to me a week ago, a romp. It even, it has to be said, has an air of pantomime about it. As such - and here the best indicator is the reaction of the audience - it works. The very mixed audience - from young children to venerable oldies, and including people who have not been to this or any other theatre before - certainly enjoyed it.

Looking at the set as I walked in, I was irresistably reminded of Bob Carlton's Return to the Forbidden Planet, and that impression was reinforced by the opening scene. The two shows have a similar ambience, both being send-ups of the comic book stories of the fifties, with the square-jawed hero and the passionate but essentially subservient woman who loves him and characters who are types rather than individuals. Not a criticism, this, merely a comment.

It is true community theatre, with a cast consisting of some of the North East's leading professional actors, some who are at the start of their professional careers, a group of older (i.e. my generation!) amateur actors who are based at the theatre, and Performing Arts sudents from the local college of further education. The writer is well-known locally and is also the head of Performing Arts at the same college, and the composer, John Miles, whose pop career in the early seventies has since matured into being regarded as one of the most respected session musicians who has worked with greats from Roy Orbison to Andrea Bocelli, was born in the region and still lives locally. And the director is both the man in charge at the Customs House and well-known in the region as one of the leading children's entertainers and pantomime stalwarts as producer, director and performer.

In all these senses, Dan Dare is a success. The music is great and the performances of all the principals - Joe Caffrey (Dan Dare), Gez Casey (Digby), Zoe Lambert (Prof. Peabody), Donald McBride (Sir Hubert), David Whittaker (The Mekon) and Jane Dixon (Crew Member One) - fine, but it still needs work. The first half is too long - it felt as though it was about to finish three times before it actually did - and was it really necessary to have three songs one after the other right at the start? The second half was much tighter and we really felt the audience lift.

If it had been a London show, it would first have been workshopped and then would have gone through a long development process, followed by a fairly substantial rehearsal period and, at the very least, a week of previews, in which it would have been rewritten, possibly a number of times, before the first night. Of course, a theatre like the Cusotms House could never afford such a process. Dan Dare was rehearsed in two weeks and had one preview. In these circumstances, critical comment seems a trifle churlish: one can only marvel that it happened at all and congratulate Ray Spencer and his cast and crew - so many of them unpaid volunteers - on their achievement.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan