As a self-proclaimed progressive rock musical, it is in many ways reminiscent of early Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice works. Jesus Christ Superstar, now incredibly popular, initially struggled when first on the stage; not in keeping with the then musical theatre scene, not safe and secure in accordance with audience taste. Is 27 a similar construction, ahead of its time and actually intrinsically brilliant in its conceptual realisation? It has definitely received the almost pre-requisite mixed reviews that go with a potentially ground-breaking piece of work and it isn’t difficult to see how it wouldn’t sit well with many regular theatregoers of today. Surrealist; fantastical; gothic yet rock, this musical is almost a requiem in its own right.
But like the tale of so many music stars that shine bright and burn out fast, Sam Cassidy’s book and lyrics is in itself somewhat self-destructive. It tries to be all things to all people – contemporary and youthful to appeal to the younger audience, full of swagger and flair, but reaching back to Greek mythology (in many ways the originators of celebrity status) in an attempt at bringing pathos and tragedy to humanise the lives of those that lost theirs all too young. Amy Winehouse; Kurt Cobain; Jim Morrissey; Janis Joplin; Jimi Hendrix – the curse of being 27 and wrapped up in drugs is eluded too heavily in this interpretation. A spell is placed upon our lead character Orpheus (Greg Oliver) by the Fates (Maisey Bawden, Eloise Davies & Jodie Jacobs) and Hades (Ryan Molloy), the veritable deal with the Devil, a hex that simultaneously runs in conjunction with the curse he places upon himself every time he snorts and injects to escape the pressures of stardom.
27 has grandiose ideas of a stadium tour, visionary status and a place in the annals of history, the musical theatre hall of fame. Directors Cassidy, Arlene Phillips and Victoria Gimby have a tall order by dreaming this big; inevitably it doesn’t meet expectation, but impresses this reviewer in being much further down the path than prejudicially expected. This is a work in progress, but one that with a bigger theatre, some further development and the continued dogged persistence of its creator has real potential to achieve its goal. For a theatre as small as the Cockpit, Nick Eve’s lighting and set design works its magic – strobe, lasers and industrial steelwork produce a visual spectacle and complement the magnitude of Cassidy’s musical creation. Having a stalwart such as Phillips at the creative helm automatically implies a slick and polished choreography, standing on its own whilst highlighting poignant moments in the story. Credit to the cast here, in particular swing Alice Martin who seamlessly steps into a male dancer’s role at the last minute but leaves no evidence that she should be anywhere else on that stage.
For a musical that seeks to tackle a raw issue, powerful in its emotion and intrinsically felt by a huge portion of the music community, there are too many tacky, superficial devices weaved in to this show. New wave hopeful, inspiring catchphrases that don’t find themselves out of place on a greetings card or a fridge magnet; throwaway laddish comments that thinly plaster over the bromance between bandmates Orpheus (Oliver), Max (Jack Donnelly) and Jason (Ryan Gibb); the sickly saccharine key change that pervades and detracts from a final song meant to reduce its audience to tears; all these need to be worked out post-run, or at least toned down. Leaving them in cheapens the mature performances, a scripted reality caricature of true feeling.
27 is a show of two halves, initially treading the line between fiction and relatable only to plunge headlong into the underworld, a blockbuster level of disbelief seeping from the second half script. The first half balances itself well ultimately because Orpheus, whilst important, is not pivotal – Oliver is competent but by no means the star of this show. Vocally the women have the power – girlfriend Amy (Cassie Compton), her tone like liquid gold that can thaw the stoniest of hearts; sexy seductress Miss M (Lucy Martin) that gives any succubus a run for their money; the backing vocals of the Fates (Bawden, Davies and Jacobs), so harmonically tight and intense that they decimate any contender in their path. The performances perfectly complement the Greek tragedy that they mimic, a genre so ahead of its time that it arguably contains more examples of feminism than found in today’s contemporary works. These women are there to support the central male character, but are in no way defined by him – if anything they rise above, phoenixes from the ashes of his failure.
For a musical that should come across as obvious, a show that should exhibit nothing more than cash influx without heartfelt creative output, there are multiple times when 27 hits the nail on the head. The smoke screen of the high production value causes its audience to see the manufactured image that those fallen stars, muses of the show, would have experienced in their lifetimes. But there is more to a superstar that the number of Twitter followers or amount of pills popped. Underneath the fame are people that are damaged, insecure and above all human. Cassidy’s show reminds us all that nobody is indestructible; be it an Achilles’ heel, a Narcissus vanity or an Orpheus slip in faith, everyone has a vice. Less of the glitz, more of the characterisation will magnify the impact and make 27 a worthy homage to these unforgettable legends, their lights snuffed out long before their time.
Music, Book, Lyrics & Director; Sam Cassidy
Co-Director: Arlene Phillips; Victoria Gimby; Matt Nalton (Music)
Design: Nick Eve (Lighting & Scene); Lucy Alexander (Costume); Harry Barker & Michael Benjamin (Sound)
Choreographer: Ryan-Lee Seager; Lucy Martin
Cast: Maisey Bawden; Eloise Davies; Jodie Jacobs; Cassie Compton; Jack Donnelly; Ryan Gibb; Lucy Martin; Ryan Molloy; Greg Oliver; Erin Bell; Kristian Cunningham; Collette Guitart; Jason Kajdi; Emily Kenwright; Alice Martin
Runs until 22 October at The Cockpit Theatre, London