Aspects of an opening night to make the heart sink: 1) Usherettes wearing furry animal ears. 2) The sort of panoply of guests headed by Angus Deayton and embarrassing-uncle radio DJs Neil Fox and Jono Coleman. 3) Finding that you're seated next to Ant and Dec. You might think these are petty prejudices; to me they're tried and tested pre-indicators of a show's ropiness. Except that they rather undersell the experience of Money To Burn. Remember the title. That's long enough; now forget it. The show's investors will also try to do so, but they may find that it has a grim irony.
Daniel Abineri's show (he wrote book, music and lyrics, directs and co-produces) tries to cover all the bases. Its plot – about a gambling, cheating, lying aristo with a penchant for being spanked, who arranges to have his wife bumped off but is ultimately found out and banged up – shoves bits of Lucan, Archer and Aitken into the blender, minces well and produces a gloop of bad musical farce. As if that weren't enough, protagonist the Hon. Lord Oliver Justin (who thus mixes three different kinds of nobility in one title) is known to his friends as "O.J.", and at one point imagines himself aboard the yacht of Robert Maxwell, a man whose buoyancy the show fails to match. A curtain-call speech asks us not to reveal the final twist of this plot of lies and counter-lies about the death of Lady Justin; if anyone reading this cares enough, they will no doubt already have guessed, so there's no need for me to bother telling you.
In the lead role, Peter Blake (who scored a no. 40 hit single in 1977 with the song from the "Lipsmackin'..." Pepsi commercials) is both the most experienced and the most memorable member of a cast that also includes a non-winner from Fame Academy and a minor player from the less successful sequels to TV sitcom Hi-De-Hi. Collectively, they exude charisn'tma, and one or two even possess what Ken Campbell once described as "the legendary Minus Quality" whereby when they exit, the stage somehow seems fuller.
And whether by accident or design, they look as if they don't want to be there; even something as throwaway as the "jazz hands" gesture when singing looks alternately flabby and sclerotic. In a proscenium arch theatre, the show probably wouldn't break the fourth wall to make itself felt by the audience; The Venue (the converted church crypt just off Leicester Square, formerly home to the Boy George musical Taboo) is a good choice as regards creating the ambience of the show's main location, the Kitten Club... but conversely, it also means that in such a space we can't help but feel the awkwardness and inadequacy.
Clive Dunstall's six-piece band make a fine old-school jazz noise, but Abineri's lyrics lack the mordancy of Fred Ebb to which he seems to aspire. Apart from the occasional briefly gigglesome pun, and the jaw-dropping schoolboy filth of the second-act opener's chorus "Wank me, spank me, yank me [or possibly "gag me"] with a hankie/That's what I like", the words sit somewhere between journeyman and doggerel. Abineri would probably like to have created a kind of satirical Lord Snooty version of Chicago, but Money To Burn has neither chic nor go; all that leaves is "aaargh".
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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