IT’S TRUE! A FISH DOES NEED A BICYCLE!
We’re in a cavernous Victorian swimming-pool, a dreamworld where the waterfall is made of bath-plug chains. Then we’re in a sea-green underwater of gliding bubbles, carnival fish on elaborate bicycles and a top-hatted vaudeville villain. Our yearned-for angel perches on a diving-board above, and hooded watery creatures suddenly bubble and vanish upwards in a Pepper’s Ghost illusion. As a family musical it’s pretty odd, and not just thanks to Morgan Large’s extraordinary designs.
Having had a retro childhood , I grew up with the Rev. Charles Kingsley’s sentimental yet fierce fable about Tom the poor sweep-boy, tossed into an underwater world and morally educated by the beautiful Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby and the witchy, vengeful Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid. This new musical is at two removes, writers Guy Jones and Ed Curtis (who also directs) and composer Chris Egan having been “inspired” by the film. So I vaguely expected the morality to be ironed out and a romantic ending bolted on.
Wrong! Instead – and this may give it ongoing succcess – they key in to the modern, vampire-loving young-adult fiction world: teenage angst at injustice, confused guilt at letting people down, and impossible unfulfilled romance. Tom – leaping down the waterfall to escape a wrongful accusation – is Thomas Milner, with a naive, emotionally truthful boy-band sweetness. Egan’s songs are often lovely and always listenable, Louise Dearman as the overseeing Mrs D. handling some fabulous power ballads and sharp lyrics – saving the boy from court she sing-snarls “I don’t like stories that end with teenage boys locked away – handed a story without hope, a story that ends at the end of a rope”. And as Ellie, the upmarket blonde teen angel perched on her diving-board, Lauren Samuels is vocally and physically gorgeous.
Tom meets three sea-creatures (on those mad bicycles) who want to help: Andy Gray is a punning Scottish lobster, Tom Davey a screamingly camp quiffed seahorse and Samuel Holmes a cowardly French swordfish. If you think someone’s channelling the Wizard of Oz, just wait till our heroes go down the terrifying tunnel at the End of Nowhere to confront the Wiz – sorry, the Kraken, who turns out to be a hologram of Richard E.Grant on a rocking chair made of old pipework. In between repeatedly dissolving into a small child, he offers temptations in the best moral tradition, luring the boy with visions of home and love to dump his water-baby friends.
Tom must make a Kingsleyesque moral choice here, since he has accidentally, betrayed the dopey dancing water-babies to the evil Electric Eel. The latter gets a great storm of cheers and boos: it’s Tom Lister – how he was wasted all those years on Emmerdale! – storming around in a top-hat and cloak, ever-changing cod accents and startling lightning effects. He electrifies the enslaved water-babies so that they constantly applaud and praise him (a sort of Kim-Jong-Eel, ho ho). Richard E.Kraken is not the answer though: look rather for the modern teen moral “Name your monster, share your fear, make the nightmares disappear” and “Be the man I know you want to be”.
Tom does the right thing, but it’s no trite ending. A spectacular one, though. And in its, way this show is as odd, sentimental, moral, tough and otherworldly as old Rev. Kingsley could wish. He was a friend and supporter of Darwin, and I think he’d rather like the evolution. Lobster-bikes and all.
box office 0)116 242 3595 to 17 May