Despite some truly wonderful performances and some smart direction, 'Help!' was unfortunately waylaid by some deeply questionable writing choices and content.
Help!, an all-new musical written by first-year music student Jamie Kimathi Milburn and performed as an independent show by Showstoppers, ran for a limited two date run this past week in the Annex Theatre. As a first-time musical from a new and nascent writer in the theatrical PA community, the show was an interesting first-time piece, helped along by some frankly astounding performances from a great cast, and some great direction too. However, I regret to say that I did find some issues with the piece that I felt hindered the piece and its success, and often threw the entire piece off-kilter.
There were elements that worked extremely well. The cast, as previously mentioned, were consistently excellent. The decision to use a cast of only four (to play a whole roster of characters in particular) was pulled off extremely well, not least due to the sheer talent of the performers involved. Quite aside from the excellent singing from all involved (which is practically a given with Showstoppers shows, considering how talented they all are), all four-demonstrated bravura acting performances too, often pulling out delicately naturalistic performances that were highly convincing and highly tuned. All four also demonstrated great comic timing, with Andy Banks’ French waiter and Victoria Howard’s cucumber eating scene both being evidence of instances where the actors showed some very well-developed comedic chops. All of the actors certainly deserve praise; John Wilders showed some remarkable naturalism and versatility, while Elliot Murray-Flint pulled off some great comedic performances and Victoria Howard demonstrated an amazing range that stretched from pure physical comedy to powerful, emotive naturalism.
However, it would be remiss not to go into detail on theatrical PA veteran Andy Banks, whose unmatched skill had him balancing his talented skills in singing, acting, comedy and more along with creating an endearing and gentle performance. All of the actors certainly deserve praise for this show, as does the directing of Lydia Edge who, with her ADs Phoebe Armstrong and Nick Ong filled the stage with an inventive Fringe-styled set that worked well to their advantages, along with several nice blocking choices (such as the nicely spaced party scene) that worked very well, as did the cross-fading in the lighting sections. In fact, lighting and sound was great throughout, so only the highest praise for Hannah Parsons here.
However, the most noticeable flaws with the piece were with the original book and lyrics that tied the piece together. Nevertheless, to state this upfront; the skill and ability to engineer and write an original piece such as this should always be praised, and I cannot praise Jamie Milburn enough for this; it is an admirable achievement. I also do not bear Milburn any ill will in the slightest, but as a wholly original piece it would be ludicrous for me not to consider reviewing the written work itself. First off, the musical’s central premise was a relatively solid one, and his portrayal of state schools deserve serious plaudits. Speaking as someone who went to state school, his portrayal of their disinterested teachers and funding issues hit home well and was accurate. However, the narrative got cluttered with multiple subplots very early on and several confusing set-pieces (such as a Janitor played by Murray-Flint appearing to break into Wilder’s house for a song or an under-explained unhappy marriage between the protagonist’s parents that was brought back suddenly as a sub-plot that was then promptly ignored) that were somewhat confusing. This was not helped by the songs themselves, I’m afraid. There is no denying the MD is a talented songwriter, but the lyrics especially could have used some further finessing. The lyrics were heavy in quantity, exceptionally expositional and often hyper-literal in the first half, which made them difficult to scan and tended to bury the hooks or even some of the melodies at times. This in turn tended to make individual songs seem to be merely continuations of previous ones. Later songs did utilise some nice imagery and metaphors, but sometimes became a bit cluttered with too many opposing and conflicting images and not enough narrative consistency (for example, a heavy religious motif appeared very suddenly in the show’s last third which seems to come out of nowhere). Indeed, there could be an argument to be made the show had too many songs and not enough dialogue between them; the show became dwarfed by its 28 songs and there was little time or space in between the music for the audience to catch its breath.
There were a few other narrative quirks that were odd to me as a reviewer. The characters often broke the fourth wall to comment on the piece’s progression (as a pseudo-Greek chorus) or to comment on musical theatre tropes. While this was a nice idea that provoked some nice laughs, the concept wore on too long, and made little sense really, given the storyline was hardly a typical one for a musical. Similarly, the semi-frequent in-jokes about Showstoppers while fitfully amusing became wearying and a bit pandering after a while. Also, I would question the sudden change in narrator from Wilder’s protagonist to an unnamed and unindicated omniscient character by Murray-Flint, who very suddenly took on this role with little explanation and tended to over-complicate the narrative. This was combined with some heavily signposted foreshadowing and an odd conclusion which appeared to be heavily judgemental towards the audience themselves, Help! unfortunately had a tendency to regard the audience as a bit thick; something which I am certain was obviously not the writer’s intention at all, but did happen. The show made some odd swerves into some extremely near-the-knuckle humour that seemed a bit out of step with the rest of the show. Most apparent of all was the teacher played by Murray-Flint, whose concerns over the paternity of his child skirted with some uncomfortable territory and created a character that came off as best deranged and sometimes a hive of odd and vaguely 4chan-like opinions. I fully accept as an audience this may not have been my kind of humour (after all, the audience did appear to laugh a lot at this, and to his credit, Murray-Flint still managed to make the character somehow partially endearing), but it was sometimes a worry.
However, on a more serious note, I felt there were some worries with the tone of the piece. It is admirable the writer and the team wished to talk about the themes they did in the piece and I don’t doubt for a second that there was no malicious feeling in the absolute slightest in the minds of the team, at all. However, the approach taken by the team on certain issues was at best ham-fisted and at worst unintentionally offensive. The closeted homosexual character (played endearingly and beautifully by Andy Banks, despite flaws in the writing of the character) was oddly portrayed, as were sentiments that he was actively trying to somehow ‘turn’ heterosexual people (an offensive stereotype, surely) and that he was declining the sexual advances of an extremely drunk woman who couldn’t say no simply because he was gay (a decision he turned back on and entered ethically odd realms with later on). This would be fine if this later idea had some condemnation or was at least questioned, but this didn’t seem to be the case. In any case, the use of Banks’ character as a fulfilment of the ‘bury your gays’ trope whereupon he appeared to die gruesomely via suicide simply to motivate or affect the protagonist into changing his homophobic ways was genuinely uncomfortable, not least to LGBTQ+ audience members attending with me.
The show also dealt, by extension, with mental health issues (a topic I was interested in, as someone who has struggled with mental health issues myself in my life). However, this again, was deeply flawed. Again, I know there was no maliciousness intended, but the depictions of suicide used were very much unnecessary, and its uncomfortable portrayal of suicidal thoughts as being a form of revenge undergone by the weak and twisted was infuriating, as was its ham-fisted portrayal of depression as a convenient plot point that can be ‘solved’. That, along with the bizarre choice to have Banks’ character kill himself gruesomely under an underpass for a reason thinly sketched out as ‘people don’t understand me’ (again, which was a bit of insult for people who were bullied at school seemingly for being ‘different’, whatever that means) before singing about ‘going to sleep’ as his character’s ghost was just bizarre. It is undoubtedly hard to get LGBTQ+ and mental health issues right in a piece and I do feel the writer did try, but it was often so badly handled the entire storyline seems to be played for aggressive shock-value and came off as an insult more often than not (especially to theatrical PA, an element of the Student’s Union with many members who are LGBTQ+ and/or mental health sufferers). It’s an issue that might need to be solved if the piece were to be re-shown or re-performed, or indeed maybe should be considered when committees in Showstoppers pitch and pass shows in the future.
Honestly, I do truly applaud Jamie Milburn and his team for their work. Creating and honing an original piece is never easy, and putting on a production of one is an achievement. Additionally, the cast were, as mentioned before, utterly excellent with stand-out performances (not least Banks’ affecting and exceptional turn) and the direction from Edge, Ong and Armstrong was well-made and well-done (as was the tech). But there were some issues with the piece that honestly should have been dealt with earlier and did affect my enjoyment of the piece. Again, I cannot stress enough I am not out here to provoke or attack, and I’m sure Milburn is a talented writer who I am sure will go on to create outstanding works. I regret to say though, that this was not one of them.
SUSU Showstoppers’ next piece is a production of Little Puddle, concludes tonight (20th May). Find out more here.