I tend to want to be as generous as I can to any new musical that actually reaches the stage – so many, too many, never reach that stage. Once the house lights come down and the production has started, though, the quality of the book and the songs are what matters.
Here, Glenn Chandler, author of plays Boys of the Empire and Scouts in Bondage as well as the creator of ITV crime drama Taggart, has taken the real-life tale of a Victorian male brothel and the scandal of its high society clients and, with music by Matt Deveraux, has concocted a tale that’s redolent with period touches but has a tendency to subsume an interesting story under layers of exposition.
19 Cleveland Street is a sumptuous townhouse where a trio of GPO telegram delivery boys find additional income discreetly servicing members of the English aristocracy. Along with the two house ‘madams’ – Charles Hammond and his French wife Caroline – and another ‘renter’, Dubliner John Saul, who is coming to terms with becoming too old to be in demand, their activities eventually become noticed by Scotland Yard.
Throughout, the musical numbers are written in music hall style without inadvertently falling into pastiche – except when deliberately intended, such as Climbing the Ladder, Passing the Buck, a duet where the police’s reluctance to take action against the houses’ upper class clients is presented (not altogether successfully) as a Vaudevillian comedy double act routine.
The first act numbers are, in the main, character establishing and/or expositional in nature, the best of which is Two Madams, as Hammond and Caroline (Josh Boyd-Rochford and Fanni Compton, in the two standout performances of the production) struggle for dominance in their business relationship before acknowledging that they are better working together than competing. But so many such numbers in a row means that the first act feels more like a series of tableaux than a progressing story.
Once the second act gets underway and the police net begins to close on the activities in Cleveland Street, the sense of storytelling begins to emerge. Even here, though, it is weighed down by repetition of the topic of the law coming down heavily on the lower classes while the upper classes get off scot free. It is the theme of the group number Read All About It, of a scene where a newspaper editor (whom we have never previously met, yet are supposed to empathise with) is sent down for libelling Lord Euston, one of the house’s clients, and the aforementioned Climbing the Ladder… vaudeville number. While that theme is certainly a valid one to include, it tends to overshadow some of the more human, more affecting storylines such as Hammond and Caroline’s relationship and Saul’s reluctance to accept that his life as a rent boy is over.
Vocally, Boyd-Rochford [disclosure – a personal friend of long standing] and Compton are by far and away the best of the ensemble. Unfortunately, the three rent boys, who are often called upon to work as a chorus, don’t work particularly well together as a vocal ensemble, and transformed Read All About It, potentially the most interesting number of the show, into a largely inaudible mess. The problems are compounded by having a three-piece band on stage, which means the actors require much stronger voices than most of the cast members possess.
There is much to like about the show, for all its faults. The ensemble number There Ought To Be a Law Against It, performed at the head of Act 1 with a reprise that serves as the show’s final number, will remain in one’s head for some time afterwards. But overall, one is left with the impression of a show that needs a few more rounds of workshopping to fashion it into something that could be as entertaining throughout as it manages in fits and spurts.
Cleveland Street – the Musical runs at Above the Stag until May 29. For more details, visit www.abovethestag.com