In the tiny space of Trafalgar Studios’ basement, a new(ish) musical emerges that embodies the best of the West End and Broadway tradition. It also has one or two of the genre’s pitfalls, but in general Betwixt! The Musical is overflowing with charm, laughs and romance, such that it feels the small space cannot truly contain it.
That’s partly because the space is overflowing with performers – a cast of nine, plus three musicians, fight for space on a stage that is more suited to far smaller numbers. Mostly, though, it’s because there’s an effervescent confidence running throughout.
Benedict Salter gives an astute central performance as nervy Bailey Howard, an author struggling with the mother of all writer’s blocks who finds inspiration, and more besides, when he steps through a magical door that appears, unbidden and unwanted, in his apartment – much as accidental roommate Cooper (Steven Webb) also does.
As the unlikely duo explore the parallel fantasy world they meet all manner of characters, many of which are played by Broadway star Ellen Greene and former Blue Peter star Peter Duncan, who each play triple roles. Duncan acquits himself well here, his many years of panto experience helping him pitch his performance at the right level.
Greene is less successful. When she gets the tone of the comedy right, she is utterly delightful – but I found such moments came fitfully for me, and the two evil sisters that she plays were insufficiently distinct from one another.
But as I said, this is a large cast, and there are many great performances to enjoy. Ashleigh Gray does wonders as an enchanted disembodied head, a role which requires her to perform with the rest of her body tucked into a small box. And the ensemble – Alyssa Nicol, Rob Wilshaw, Vicki Lee Taylor and Will Hawskworth – are delightful whenever they appear. Hawksworth’s cross-dressing, grumpy mute Joan is a delightful scene-stealing performance.
But when it comes to upstaging everyone, it is Webb’s over-exaggeratedly camp actor, Cooper, that produces the most belly laughs. It’s a tour de force performance from Webb that celebrates the excesses of the over-confident, under-talented actor with a lightness of touch that makes his presence a comic pleasure rather than the chore it could be if played by a lesser performer.
For all the excellent performances, there are flaws. The confined space means that there is no set design save for a painted skyline on the back wall. While choreographer Grace Harrington has done wonders in producing several superb dance sequences in such a small area (if you’re sitting on the front row, you’ll want to keep your feet tucked in at all times) elsewhere the direction doesn’t quite fit Trafalgar Studios 2’s seating plans. We were lucky in that our seats were centrally located: talking to friends who were seated at the sides, poor blocking and the lack of amplification meant their experience of the musical was less fun and engaging than ours.
For its faults, though, there is so much to celebrate here. This is a show that revels in the warmth and jollity of Vaudeville and pantomime, the heightened sexuality of Fosse, and a very 21st Century take on gay characters. I haven’t laughed so much in ages, and would dearly love to see this show again. And again.