‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ Sensational Victorian Music Hall Whodunit, showing at the Arts Theatre until 17th June
Wendi Peters (Princess Puffer) singing "The Wages of Sin"
Review by Fiona Lister
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the most ingenious musical I’ve seen and one that pays tribute to the work of Charles Dickens and early British Victorian music hall. Having enjoyed a hugely successful run at Clapham’s Landor Theatre, this charming production is now showing over at the Arts Theatre. Presented by Aria Entertainment, The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the only murder mystery I’ve seen where audiences sing along with the cast and solve the mysterious end riddle.
Based on the unfinished, fifteenth novel by Charles Dickens, Rupert Holmes’ hugely successful Tony Award-winning musical version certainly recreates the early 19th century golden days of music hall splendour. Directed by Matthew Gould, and Produced by Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment, together with Brendan Riding, Katie Snaydon, Annegret Märten, and Matthew Hopton of Knockhardy Productions, the Arts Theatre invites audiences to celebrate the bicentenary anniversary year of Dickens’ birth and the captivating magic of great British music hall. Audiences finish the unfinished story by voting on who the murderer is and who the lovers should be. Charles Dickens died on 8th June 1870, having completed only half the novel. The open ending of this brilliantly clever musical adaptation has multiple outcomes, determined by the audience. Matthew Gould’s slick direction, choreography and balance between comedy, melodrama and the historical context of music hall have been skilfully combined to enhance the plot.
The set by Production Designer Ben M. Rogers, James Henshaw and Natasha Piper perfectly captures the look of the old Gaiety Theatre or Hackney Empire with velvet curtains detailed in gold. Right from the moment you walk into the Arts Theatre you are greeted by the cast dressed as members of the Music Hall Royale who hand out song sheets. The audience is invited to sing music hall numbers such as “Champagne Charlie”, “The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery” and “Oh The Fairies” (music hall audiences used to join in with their favourite songs). "The Boy I Love Is Up in the Gallery”, was originally written by George Ware in 1885 for the music hall star Miss Nelly Power.
Pantomime and melodrama combine in this colourful metatheatrical play within a play to re-create a heady era of vibrant Victorian comedy and drama. This is breathtaking work with dream-like vignettes – a trippy take on Victorian music hall. The cast is accompanied by an on-stage orchestra playing the delightful musical score with orchestrations by Tony Osborne and is presided over by Musical Director James Cleeve (keyboards) with Karen O’Brien (Reeds), Stuart Fowler (Trumpet), Richard Craig (Percussion) and Mara Lobo (Cello). The orchestra is situated towards the back of the stage – the pitch never drowns out the singing and the harmonies flow wonderfully from one musical number to the next.
Credit must also be given to Sound Designer Colin Pink together with Andrew Johnson (Associate Sound Designer), Tom Evans (Production Sound Engineer) and Mitch Peters (Sound 1) who have perfectly managed to help enhance the perfect, flawless energy of this production.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is visually very strong. The costume design by Jean Gray and Neil Gordon (Associate Costume Designer) is exquisite, detailing strong jewel coloured dresses in crimson and emerald with carefully accessorised feathers and sparking diamanté hair decorations. Everyone looks scarily authentic. Jean Gray and Neil Gordon have thought out every miniscule detail. The result is a ghostly step back in time to Victorian England - a world where music halls such as The Shoreditch Empire, the Middlesex, Drury Lane (known as ‘Old Mo’) and the Gaiety Theatre, London (the Strand Music Hall), which later became known as the Grecian Theatre, reigned supreme in the world of entertainment. By the time Dickens died in 1870, there was a huge music hall revolution with over thirty grand music hall theatres having been built in London.
‘Drood’ as it became known, premièred on 21st August 1985 at the New York Shakespeare Festival (Delacorte Theatre) before transferring to the Imperial Theatre on Broadway on 2nd December 1985.The Broadway production, produced by Joseph Papp, was presented by arrangement with JOSEF WEINBERGER LIMITED and starred George Rose, Cleo Laine, John Herrera, Howard McGillin, Patti Cohenour, Jana Schneider, Betty Buckley, Donna Murphy, Judy Kuhn, and Rob Marshall, where it won five out of eleven Tony nominations, including an award for Best Musical. Rupert Holmes won Best Book and Best Original Score. The popular production with an altered cast, went on tour to North America and ended up having a West End run at London’s Savoy Theatre starring Ernie Wise and Lulu, in 1987 and in 2007-2008 ‘Drood’ was revived at the Warehouse Theatre in London. The recent highly acclaimed run over at the Landor Theatre was a huge success.
Suitably Dickensian-looking white-bearded Chairman William Cartwright (Denis Delahunt) is the evening’s grand master of ceremonies. Together with his actors of the Music Hall Royale, he re-enacts the story of The Mystery of Edwin Drood . The Chairman invites the audience to be as "vulgar and uncivilized as legally possible" (back in the days of good old East End theatricals audiences would join in the singing, eat, drink, smoke and heckle - we only sang and drank I hasten to add!).
The casting by Benjamin Newsome is superb. In true British pantomime spirit, the title role is played by a girl (Natalie Day) dressed as principal boy. There are sensational appearances in this whodunit story by Wendi Peters (best known for her role as Cilla Battersby Brown in Coronation Street) who plays the role of the earthy Princess Puffer – a bawdy madam who runs a dubious opium den. Wendi Peters gives Princess Puffer a raw, earthy, guttural edge. Dressed in crimson and spilling out of her dress, Puffer sings musical numbers including: “The Wages of Sin”, “The Garden Path to Hell” and “Puffer’s Revelation”.
Daniel Robinson plays the role of Drood's creepy, obsessive, choirmaster uncle John Jasper who is in love with his pupil, Rosa Bud (Victoria Farley). Daniel Robinson gives a wonderful portrayal of the tortured choirmaster singing “A Man Could Go Quite Mad”. Victoria Farley, Drood's blonde, pouting fiancée, dazzles the audience with a melodramatic interpretation of Miss Bud, singing the most haunting song in the show “Moonfall” for John Jasper’s delectation. David Francis (Neville Landless) is fabulous as the brooding, hot-headed angry young man from Ceylon and Loula Geater portrays one of the best characters in this production, playing the role of his sister Helena, the somewhat mysterious, secretive Victorian siren of the troupe.
Richard Stirling is hilarious in the role of dotty Reverend Crisparkle, cleverly punctuating the ecclesiastic eccentric with fussy gestures and fidgety mannerisms. Smiling sunbeam Ben Goffe steals the limelight in his role as Harry Sayle. Ben’s recent film and television credits include Moving Portrait in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
There are other notable appearances from Oliver Mawdsley (Horace/Mr James Throttle); Paul Hutton (Durdles/Mr Nick Cricker) and Tom Pepper (Deputy/Master Nick Cricker). The Mystery of Edwin Drood marks Tom Pepper’s professional stage début since graduating from Guildford School of Acting. Similarly, Christopher Coleman is terrific in the roles of Bazzard and Mr Phillip Bax. Chloe Akam and Ralph Bogard have cameo Swing roles.
I won’t spoil the plot by telling you the storyline – for that you will need to see the show and solve the riddle, but what I can tell you is that Drood vanishes; all that’s left is a blood-soaked coat and a mystery.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a high energy, colourful, vivacious production and one that everyone will love. It’s also value for money with tickets from £10 - £35 so you can take the whole family.
Don’t miss the last week of The Mystery of Edwin Drood over at the Arts Theatre and if you have already seen the production at the Landor Theatre, I advise seeing this again. The Arts Theatre has re-created the magic on a larger scale and the staging is very different, although I did love the more intimate setting of the Landor’s studio, particularly for Princess Puffer’s opium den scenes. However, the choreography and musical numbers like “Off to the Races” benefits from a larger stage.
I highly recommend getting yourselves over to the Arts Theatre to choose the murderer and your lovers (so to speak)! Use your sleuthing abilities to solve The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Take your mums, aunts, grandmothers and children to see this terrific show. The Arts Theatre Tea Room is open from Tuesday to Saturday at 11:30a.m. to 7:30p.m. and the Theatre’s Foyer Bar opens one hour before performances. Find out who the dastardly Dick Datchery is and don’t delay! This spectacular musical hall romp must finish on 17th June.
Tuesday – Saturday at 7:30 p.m. with Thursday and Saturday matinees at 3:00 p.m. Sunday performances at 4:00 p.m.
Tickets: £10 - £35.
Book online via http://www.artstheatrewestend.co.uk/ Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Address: Arts Theatre, 6-7 Great Newport Street, London WC2H 7JB