Bel Ami – The Musical*** (Charing Cross Theatre, 20 February 2014)

Posted: February 21, 2014 in Theatre

This review was originally written for The Public Reviews:

Centring on the intertwined worlds of journalism and politics, Guy de Maupassant’s novel, Bel Ami, told of corruption, greed, immorality and hypocrisy at the highest level of public life. The original setting was France in the 1880s, but crossing the Channel and leaping forward to the 21st Century, it is remarkable how little of the story has needed to be changed and, with the Leveson inquiry and phone-hacking trials still hitting the headlines, it could hardly be more topical. This new musical is performed by students for BA Musical Theatre at the London College of Music, with support coming from now professional alumni. Inevitably, there are a few performances that need a little polishing and the casting is not always perfect, but ample compensation is provided by the performers’ commitment and zeal. There are two alternat- ing casts and, at this performance, the lead role of George Dury was played by Johnny Fitzharris; he attacks the part with supreme confidence, commanding the stage and belting out his big number, Don’t Question Me, as if he really believes he could be the next Michael Ball. He may just be right. The story begins with George, a former soldier in Afghanistan, homeless and begging for small change at Westminster tube station. Through chance, he gets a job with a low brow newspaper and works his way up from junior reporter to celebrity gossip writer and political columnist, eventually using blackmail to enter politics. We start out rooting for him as a downtrodden underdog, but, when it becomes clear that he is ruthless, manipulative, amoral and a serial seducer of women, our attraction to him starts to wane. Having an anti-hero as the leading character in a story is not in itself a bad thing, but the absence of any sympathetic characters for him to play against leaves the show without an emotional heart. The women left in his wake are all users too and they behave equally badly; they sing their ballads of woe, individually and collectively, but the numbers fall flat, because our reaction to them is “you got what you deserved, so who cares?” The score by Alex Loveless is lively and varied, incorporating contemporary pop, a little rap and traditional musical theatre styles. He knows how to mix things up too, as when the show gets a little heavy in the second act, he diverts from the main narrative and throws in Too Much Money, showing MPs frolicking in their Caribbean playground. It is unusual in musicals for a single person to take on all three tasks – book, lyrics and score – and Love- less needs to be congratulated for this, but he may want to contemplate whether a collabo- rator could have helped to make the spoken dialogue sharper and wittier and guided him as to where he might have wielded the axe to songs that work less well than others. Chris Loveless’ direction and Anthony Whiteman’s choreography are fluid and imaginative, performed on an uncluttered stage with minimal props. Most heartening is that their pro- duction shows a clear understanding of what is uniquely possible in the art form of musical theatre. As examples: trial by media is explained in a gem of a routine with two rival groups facing each other – one (phone) tap dancing, the other performing a “liberal shuffle”; earlier a sombre funeral merges into a joyful wedding during a single song, the characters’ emo- tions seen to be equally shallow at each; and the corrosive effects of unethical journalism are demonstrated with the chorus waving their red tops as they sing Read All About it, cre- ating visual images that endorse the cynicism of the lyrics. Bel Ami is not the sort of of story from which we expect a happy outcome, but this produc- tion could well lead to several of them. If the efforts of these talented students have given the show’s creators a clearer vision of the strengths and flaws in their work, they should be able to develop it further and a full scale professional production may beckon.

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