Xanadu

Book by Douglas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar
Xanadu Theatre Productions
Southwark Playhouse (The Large)

Carly Anderson as 'Kira' and the company Credit: Paul Coltas and James Capewell
Carly Anderson as 'Kira' and Samuel Edwards as Sonny Credit: Paul Coltas and James Capewell
Carly Anderson as 'Kira' and the company Credit: Paul Coltas and James Capewell

Xanadu was the 1980 movie musical starring Olivia Newton John that was so bad that it won its director one of the very first Razzies (Golden Raspberry Awards) and was nominated in six different categories. I didn’t see it so can’t comment.

Its songs, however, were hits and in 2007 this stage musical salvaged them. It opened on Broadway with a new book that won a Drama Desk Award and now gets a high-energy London production in which composer Farrar’s hit Physical is added to the score.

It’s the story of Clio, the Muse in charge of History who falls for a human. She comes to earth calling herself Kira, adopting a grotesque Aussie accent (in deference to Newton-John) and on roller skates.

Her arrival at Venice Beach, California, is just in time to stop failed painter Sonny, who’s just done a mural of her and her sisters, from committing suicide. Her two bitchiest sisters connive with Eros to make them a number and soon they are trying to set up a roller disco in a derelict cinema—the Xanadu.

Its wickedly camp—and I don’t mean the two nicer muse sisters who happen to be fellows—brightly witty when the ear-splitting volume and broad Bronx and other American accents don’t make lines incomprehensible and very high spirited. There’s no difficulty following the simple and obvious story, the numbers come thick and fast in what, if you had been there, is a riotous 'eighties nostalgia fest. It’s a loving parody of US naivety and lack of classical learning and girl-gets-boy fantasy.

Carly Anderson is a captivating Clio and Samuel Edwards delightfully dumb as Sonny. They’ve a lovely duet with her pushing him around inside a telephone box and the fact that they shove their fingers through where glass is supposed to be and then trace patterns on its imaginary surface seems part of the crazy, camp presentation.

Lizzy Connolly is a cruel Calliope with Alison Jiear’s bitchy Melpomene, Joel Burman a muscular Terpsichore, jetéing through her sisters, and Nicholas Duncan a Thalia striking statuesque poses with Emily McGougan as Euterpe and Micha Richardson as Erato. (I know there are two missing but California’s not good on classical mythology.)

The boys fill in as humans on muscle beach too and Nigel Barber has a nice double as an earlier conquest of Clio’s (with a number harking back to the Andrews Sisters 1940s) and as a silver-haired Zeus. The band is great too.

“Children’s theatre for gay men of forty” is the way one of these muses describes what’s going on and she’s got it precisely. Though it’s not just for them. The high spirits of the whole tongue-in-cheek extravaganza are infectious and it demands total indulgence. For once, a standing ovation seemed entirely authentic and deserved by a company who had worked for it, whether whirling on wheels or peeping out, like the band, from little clouds up on high.

This isn’t a show you can begin to take seriously so you just sit back and enjoy it. If there is comparable space it could move to, it could become a cult.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton