Review: Showstoppers’ Help! at The Annex Theatre

3
40%
40
Flawed

Despite some truly wonderful performances and some smart direction, 'Help!' was unfortunately waylaid by some deeply questionable writing choices and content.

  • 4

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.

Share.

About Author

avatar

A third year History student, who has spent most of his time at university either messing around in the university's Performing Arts societies and/or hoarding and enjoying pop culture in all its flavours.

3 Comments

  1. avatar

    Personally, I think this review is a terrible account of what was an enjoyable evening and a fantastic production. This reviewer seems to forget a few things. Firstly, this was the first musical written by an 18 year old boy – that, at any age, is a large feat, and to produce something fantastic and then receive a review like this, seems incredibly unfair. Secondly, this seems to completely forget that these experiences may have happened to the composer, and thus this article in insensitive and rude for suggesting that it is not true enough to reality. Thirdly, this entire review seems like a personal vendetta, one whereby the author is struggling with some of the topics considered in this musical and thus decides to take it out on the musical rather than properly assess his own feelings. Furthermore, one cannot say “This is not an attack” and then attack the entirety of the performance. Positive and constructive criticism is always welcome for things such as this, however in this case, this review is below par and an absolute shambles of both grammar, tact and content. A true blemish on what is usually a website of outstanding content. I feel ashamed for whoever wrote it and hope that they apologies for such a scathing review.
    On the Wednesday night that I went to see the performance, the theatre was truly alive with enthusiasm and laughter. With not a dry eye in the house at the ending scene, my review of this is that whilst it is very much a first attempt, especially at dealing with such a challenging topic (which must be commended regardless), it show a great deal of promise for someone who could be a fantastic and successful composer one day. I just hope that this review does not deter him from his goal and only pushes him to succeed further and prove this review entirely and completely wrong.

  2. avatar
    Peter Milburn on

    Having sat through a performance of an original musical by Jamie Kimathi Milburn on the 17th May I was really struck by the quality of the performances the songs and the scripted story. So when I was linked to the review by Will Hankey I was absolutely appalled at the sheer animosity of the review and the sheer volume of hate seemingly aimed at the writer for daring to write about a subject that clearly struck a nerve with this individual. It would have been better if the reviewer had distanced himself from doing the review once his objectivity was compromised. How can you on one hand, praise highly the acting and the comedic timing and indeed all departments and in such gushing terms and then slate the very person who provided all the music and script and was instrumental in putting the whole show together in the first place.
    The whole review was overthought to the point it he simply was making up silly points and putting inferences and conclusions to the story which simply did not exist. He seems to believe that using different words meaning the same thing that we his audience would not notice and simply wash over the words we might not be expected to know. As a normal average person who has not swallowed the contents of the Oxford English dictionary I find it extremely condescending and irritating to say the least that this reviewer in trying so hard to somehow give the impression by using words we might not readily know that he is somehow more intelligent and should be believed, has in my opinion just shown himself up as a petty small minded bigoted person who if he could possibly get his head out of his own anus and join the real world, might realise what potential harm this piece of unadulterated garbage of a review is. It is ironic that he missed the whole point of the musical and tried to make out it was something it wasn’t. The basic premise was clearly a take on Romeo and Juliet albeit a daring one, but why not? Just because the main parts are two males and explores the sometimes understandable confusions of developing youth, that lead all too often to depression and suicide. The reviewer may not like this subject matter, but trying to bury it under this misguided diatribe in the hope that it somehow does not exist in the real world is extremely short sighted. Does this reviewer think we are all thick or something? We can form our own impressions and opinions, and if the reviewer had after praising the performances had simply left it that he personally did not like the subject matter or what he thought it meant instead of embarking on an uncontrolled assassination of a young person that would have been okay. However he clearly has an axe to grind and his review which went so far off piste it is tantamount to bullying of an impressionable individual who God forbid had the courage of his convictions and wrote about something we should all be aware. That is that as young people mature and become adults they experiment to find their true selves and not just sexually, and yes it can sometimes lead to depression and in not so extreme cases these days, suicide. I hope that young Jamie Milburn in reading the review by Will Hankey gives it the proper respect by screwing it up and throwing in the trash where it deserves to be. Let us hope and pray that he does not crumble into a confused, and self- loathing individual by these hurtful comments, as has happened to many over the years dealt out in various guises.
    My impartial unbiased review is below if anyone would like to read on.
    Help! An original musical play by Jamie Kimathi Milburn
    In writing this review a week or so after first seeing this musical I have allowed some little time to pass to allow for some consolidation of thought and to lessen the knee jerk reaction of an immediate retort.
    Being unaware fully of the subject matter (deliberately so) and only having heard one of the songs before, my wife and I sat down with our son Paul to watch. Any apprehension of any awkward silences or forgotten lines were completely swept away after the first laughter and applause. I thought the reduction in cast from 15 to 4 may have inhibited the performances in some-way, but with very good acting skills and smart direction and not to mention the inventive writing of Jamie, it seemed to work very well and tended to naturally make room for further amusement with the multiple part changes amongst the cast. I also liked the breaks away from the story to generally poke fun at the theatre world, whilst necessary changes in scenery were made. One of my favourite was the dream sequence, which was a bit tongue in cheek nod to the various dream/cutaway sequences that appear in many musicals. Whilst most of the songs were used to tell the story and were similar in many ways I hardly noticed the sheer volume and thought the mix of plain dialogue and songs to tell the story was well balanced. I certainly never thought “Oh no not another song”. After all it was billed as a musical, what it didn’t say was it was hard hitting and thought provoking, broken up with just the right amount of humour so as not to be depressing. The white parent black child scenes had me in stitches and having two mixed race sons and a daughter I brought up as my own who is as dark skinned as her mother, I may have been excused if it was little too close for comfort. However, I got it and the laughter came naturally. I would have been more comfortable if the use of expletives had not been used in some of the songs and dialogue, although I am sure it is true to the kind of language frequently used these days amongst our youth, I do believe had better phrasing been used it would not have detracted from the overall effect and would have shown a greater maturity and grasp of the wider English language that I am sure Jamie has but chose to be lazy with. That said, it is just a personal observation from an oldie parent, other less judgemental may not have been bothered at all, however may well not show my mother as she would indeed turn off and not watch.
    I have to say my favourite song which encapsulated the whole play was “as long as we are together” it was sung superbly by Andy banks and brought the full meaning of the song and play to life.
    My overriding feeling was it was a take on Romeo and Juliet and this song was almost as good as “somewhere” from west side story (another Romeo and Juliet take off). It certainly had sentiments that were both gut wrenching and heart aching. Forget the male on male scenario and just think two confused youths neither sure of themselves, Michael is confused about his feelings for Alex, which leads to Alex believing instead of having a friend he could have so much more, when this is proved wrong Alex doubts himself and embarks on a mis-guided sexual relationship with Sophie. This only makes him unhappy leading to his inevitable demise. It could easily have been a man loving a woman who does not love him back or simply ends up going with a friend. The bottom line, and this can never be under estimated, “LOVE HURTS” and can be all consuming and Yes can lead to emptiness and more frequently than we care to admit lead to depression and suicide. “There but for the grace of God” springs from my own mixed up youth memories.
    Many would shy away from this type of subject matter and I believe Jamie should be applauded for tackling it albeit wrapping it up with humour and songs which allowed we the audience to enjoy it without it becoming too sombre.
    Finally, the musicians were faultless and under Jamie’s direction I would expect nothing else, that said I am not a musician so I am probably wrong.
    Now I have to admit my review is not so unbiased as I made out, but I have tried to be as fair handed as possible. As his father Jamie well knows if I do not like something I will say and although he may not agree he respects and appreciates my point of view which I always try to be constructive with. As parents we are both as proud as can be of all our children and the fine young people they have become, Jamie being the youngest is only just on the path to finding himself and I am sure he will in the future achieve some success in his chosen career. It is a rocky road but keep on believing and you will get there I am sure.
    My advice to my son Jamie Kimathi Milburn is to take the positives weigh the negatives ignore the bigoted and one last thing, Jamie “onwards and upwards!”

  3. avatar

    We defend the right of our contributors to pen reviews that convey their thoughts honestly and hold every performing arts show to their own high standards. This is a carefully phrased review, which acknowledges that this is Jamie’s first independent show, whilst also giving an honest, objective account of how the show was received by this particular writer.

Leave A Reply