Musical Theatre that can still surprise its audience

by James Haddrell, Artistic & Executive Director of Greenwich Theatre

I have often written in this column about musical theatre – its value to the UK economy, its dominance in the public’s perception of theatre due to the power of the West End, and most recently the ill-advised forthcoming film adaptation of the stage musical CATS.

Setting aside the pros and cons of a transfer to the big screen, the latter is a great example of the unexpected places in which you can find inspiration for a musical – anything from T S Eliot’s series of poems about feline characters to the French Revolution, a Mormon crusade to Africa or a group of women imprisoned for murdering their husbands have provided the material for hit musicals.

However, it is still possible to surprise audiences in a musical and that’s exactly what’s happening at the moment at the Union Theatre in Southwark where Debunk Theatre are presenting Midnight – a new musical adapted from Azerbaijani writer Elchin’s play Citizens Of Hell.

The show is set on New Year’s Eve in 1937, at the height of the Great Terror, when the ruling Communist party imprisoned, exiled or killed over a million of its citizens. We find ourselves in the home of a married couple just before midnight – a midnight, it seems, that might never come – when a knock on the door could mean the arrival of the secret police or, as is the case here, something far more mysterious.

The ambitious show is handled well by its young cast, led by Colin Burnicle and Norma Butikofer as the couple and Leon Scott as the dreaded visitor, with an ensemble of actor-musicians and a musical energy that wouldn’t be out of place in a West End production of Cabaret or Chicago. The show revels in its musicality, bursting out of the naturalistic apartment set and confronting the audience with a series of memorable songs.

I spend a lot of time following the development of new musicals like Midnight, which benefited from an early workshop opportunity at the St James Theatre back in 2015, but as I write this I am also involved in producing the development stages of a new musical myself.

For this new project, composer Andrew Dickson and bookwriter/lyricist Andrew Rattenbury have come together with director Clemmie Reynolds of BurntOut Theatre to tackle an equally unlikely topic in a musical – the rise to power of the Roman empress Theodora.

Wife to the Emperor Justinian, Theodora was born into poverty and grew up in the brothels of Constantinople but she gradually rose through the ranks to ultimately become the most powerful woman in the world – and when she did, the social reforms she implemented were far-reaching in their support for women’s rights at a time when that notion barely existed.

Selected for inclusion in Litmus Fest, a festival of new work presented at the Pleasance in Islington, I appreciate that Theodora could sound like a history lesson dressed up as a musical, but this is anything but. Opening with a Gregorian style chant that morphs into an electro-punk anthem, this is a show that celebrates all the rage and all the joy that exists in any story of a fight against social injustice and adversity – and what fits better in music than rage and joy?

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