Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 2 August, 2005

I’ve had reservations in the past about Sheila Ferguson in stage musicals.  Despite her verve and flair, it’s often seemed to me as if the Three Degrees singer were more concerned with being admired for herself than serving the show she happened to be appearing in.  But oh, Lord, this dreary evening needs every atom of pizzazz Ferguson can give it, and more. From start to finish it’s misguided, bewildering and just dull.

“Music, lyrics and original idea by John Robinson,” says the programme. Generously, though, he also gives a little credit to Alexandre Dumas, whose 1850 novel provides the show’s source.  Dumas’ book is loosely based on the true story of a mysterious prisoner in late-17th century France. Theories still abound as to who he really was.  And unless I missed it, Robinson’s show doesn’t bother giving us any solution.

The real mystery here is: how can you tell whether the man onstage, wearing headgear that makes him look like something Tom Baker’s Dr Who might once have met, is really doing the singing?  Well, at times you can spot his tongue through the mouth-slit. And his miked voice is a bit muffled (though, oddly, sometimes not as much as the Jailer’s.)  Think about that: a muffled voice as a sign of a musical’s success? I’m sorry?

In fact, there are several enigmas here. For a start, what kind of West End musical has a cast of just three – the Prisoner, the Jailer and the Gypsy?  How do they manage to make the score, although it’s played live, sound more artificial than if it had been taped?  Does choreographer Conchita del Campo exist? (Judging by what we see, no.)  And did Robinson ever give any thought to writing any actual tunes for it?

This tedious two-hour love-triangle, played out against a set that’s less like prison bars than a garden trellis, is almost entirely unmemorable.  Every so often some atrocious lyrics, such as “Why do you wear that iron mask?”/”Don’t ask! Don’t ask!”, loom up out of the fog of general synthesized sub-Les-Mis-ness. But that’s about it.  Oh, and how a prisoner in 1669 can sing words by Tennyson is another mystery.

Mark McKerracher’s Jailer has an accent that wanders around eastern Europe, which is odd for a Californian playing a Frenchman. Robert Fardell as the Prisoner is perhaps ill-advised to reveal his face for the curtain call.  It’s not even bad enough to be fun.  One number asks “Who’s the prisoner here?/All of us, I fear.” Except, of course, for those numerous folk who sensibly left at the interval. Avoid.

Written for Teletext.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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