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Returning from a far country

by
13 September 2013

Roderic Dunnett sees  a new musical

Military moves: a moment in the the Belgrade Theatre and Inspire production of The Prodigals

Military moves: a moment in the the Belgrade Theatre and Inspire production of The Prodigals

BIBLICAL musicals can work well. So welcome, The Prodigals: A man had two sons, with contributions by multiple composers, which imaginatively takes the story from Luke 15 and recasts it in war-torn present-day Afghanistan.

The Father is here an officer from a family with a long tradition in the British Army. Colonel Luke Gibson (the wonderfully voiced Simon Bowman, a star of Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, and Evita, who late in Part II shows us what it really means to sing on stage) has two offspring. Cue good/bad, black/white, elevated/fallen - except that the story doesn't see it like that.

When the baby of the family, Kyle (Greg Oliver), abandons the military (a good theme also well treated), his elder brother by four years, Captain Mike Gibson (Sam Ferriday, appropriately dull but effective), who is adjutant to their father in the same regiment, cuts him off: black and white. But the father, as we well know, will welcome the prodigal back and cherish him still.

I had many reservations about this show, about its claims to address "big" issues (war, drugs), and the underwhelming quality of the music. But that didn't stop it from having its own impact, and in some departments it really excelled.

Sean Cavanagh's atmospheric, deliberately understated set captures the oppressive military context and bunker mentality to which this story of paternal love forms a striking contrast. Ben Cracknell's lighting makes all the difference. The group choreography by Natalie Murdoch yields some superb sequences; and all the ensemble move, and sometimes dance, brilliantly - even James William Marshall, the terrific Scots sergeant.

Three female Buttonses waft on and off like tempting Rhinemaidens, luring the pop-star druggie to worse excesses: their moves are stupendous - an immensely funny routine. Omari Bernard ("Disco", paired with "Beat", Jamie-Ray Hartshorne) is the nattiest dancer/mover. But his companions do well, too.

So where is the flaw? When dance and music stop and dialogue takes over. Here, Bowman, given an iffy script, is one of the weaker links. Tension droops. The audience seemed to enjoy it without being grabbed. The second half, which builds to reconciliation, improves.

But, if verbally it sometimes flops, musically it flails. Sarah Watson, as young Kelly Byrne, the pop-song aspirant killed by the drugs that Kyle encourages her to take (a picture of Amy Winehouse appears in the programme), strikes me as not much of a singer, or at least a stage persona - yet. Greg Oliver, though brilliant at being tossed around like a wet blanket, lacks charisma, and so leaves a hole at the heart of the show.

Joe Harmston, who co-wrote with Ray Goudie, neither directs sufficiently nor does enough to save dialogue and (worse) lyrics that lack pace, intensity, and depth. All (not just some) of the 20-odd songs need arranging or orchestrating; for that aspect, when it occurs, is tip-top. The musical content itself is a mishmash of sentiment, to say no more.

At the Belgrade Theatre, Belgrade Square, Coventry, until tomorrow. Box office: phone 024 7655 3055.
www.belgrade.co.uk

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