Behind the Iron Mask

John Robinson (music and lyrics), book by Colin Scott and Melinda Walker
Duchess Theatre
(2005)

Poster

Alexandre Dumas’ romantic novel about the mysterious man in the iron mask, often filmed, was one of several swashbuckling sequels to his Three Musketeers saga. He loosely based it on the real-life story of an unknown prisoner, held for life in various jails under the orders of Louis XIV, eventually dying in the Bastille in 1703.

This new musical version by John Robinson making his first foray in the West End has three things going for it. Sheila Ferguson (remember The Three Degrees?) brings a forceful stage presence, fine figure and powerful mezzo to her role as The Gypsy, a branded outcast who comes between the masked prisoner and his jailer.

Secondly, as a tunesmith Robinson can turn out a decent melody, including neo-classical settings for both Tennyson and Byron verses, with backing by a lively six-strong combo led by musical director Alasdair MacNeill. While thirdly, the intriguing (if misleading) title offers a neat box office come-on.

Alas we never get behind the iron mask, neither literally nor figuratively. And no buckles are swashed in this static, prison cell staging by Tony Craven, which on press night left many empty seats after the interval.

Indeed the luckless light tenor, Robert Fardell, who plays The Prisoner, is forced to sing his entire role from inside a hideous, beaky head-covering like a Darth Vader helmet in meltdown mode, a desolate, distancing effect not helped by ill-fitting knee breeches.

Light relief is afforded by baritone Mark McKerracher, who galumphs about as The Jailer in impromptu dance movements, and who, in a brief aside set in front of a framed pastoral landscape, picks up Ferguson’s sexy gypsy while out on a country walk, and improbably brings her back to the cell, hoping for a bit of rumpy.

But the major problem is that, having taken ages to set up the scene, nothing much happens beyond a hinted night of passion between the prisoner and the gypsy, and some embarrassingly gluey male-bonding in the moments before a poisoned chalice helps bring down the curtain on a disappointing evening.

Reviewer: John Thaxter