The Southwark Playhouse really is a gem of a London theatre. Just a short tube journey away from the hustle and bustle of the West End it is a far more affordable performing space that doesn't know the meaning of restricted view or view from the gods. I admit that I have not loved everything I have seen here, but for a mere £12 for a preview ticket to a show this is likely because it's so affordable and I've taken more of a risk (I wouldn't spend £££ on a West End show unless I am 99 per cent certain I'll enjoy it and even then I'm reluctant to part with that much of my hard-earned cash). Recent gems I've seen at the Southwark Playhouse include Carrie and Grand Hotel, as well as the spectacular In the Heights transfer at the King's Cross Theatre – so how does their latest venture, a stage version of film flop Xanadu compare?
If you're not already familiar with Xanadu from the Olivia-Newton John film from the 1980s than it might be a tad difficult to comprehend the silly story, but I'll give it a shot.
Sonny Malone (Samuel Edwards) is a struggling artist and after he has chalked a particularly disappointing (in his eyes) mural of the Greek Muses on a wall along Venice Beach in California he wants to give up and take his own life. But just before he can jump off a building, Kira (Carley Anderson) rollerskates into his life and turns everything upside down. What Sonny doesn't know is that Kira is really Clio, the muse of art, and she was sent to inspire him in his work. So far, so good, right? Except, rather than a straight off supernatural romance on rollerskates, Xanadu the musical is very much a tongue-in-cheek version of the film, with super camp characters, over-the-top choreography and outfits, an Australia accent that makes Olivia Newton John sound like a posh Brit, and repeated breaking of the fourth wall.
I do love a good cheesefest when it's done well (hi, Rock of Ages, hi) and there are certainly some fun moments to be had in Xanadu (such as every scene on rollerskates ever, which there weren't nearly enough of), however it was relying too heavily on its over-the-top comedy and along the lines it lost some of the quality of good storytelling and performing as the jokes became repetitive. Sure, the story isn't the most in-depth to begin with but I would argue that at least half of the musicals currently playing in London rely on a flimsy plot, yet through exceptional music, staging and a feast for the eyes they become something far more exciting, elevating a meagre story into a visual spectacle.
And fun it may be, beyond a smoke machine in the second act a visual spectacle Xanadu is not. The music too wasn't the most memorable, though there were some 80s crackers hiding in among the otherwise mediocre songbook, from title song Xanadu to Olivia Newton-John's Let's Get Physical, and interval showstopper Don't Walk Away to the showstealing Evil Woman by Calliope (Lizzy Connelly) and Melponene (Alison Jiear), two muses jealous of their sister Clio that plan a plot to take her down. Even though Calliope was only ever Melponene's evil sidekick, every movement and crazy note that came out of Lizzy Connolley's mouth was sensational and I would've loved to have seen more of her during the show.
It is risky move to take a film that was a major flop to begin with and turn it into a stage adaptation in the hopes that it will be a success in its theatrical version. Every single note in between the cheesy one-liners and hit-or-miss jokes has to be absolutely perfect and impressive to ensure that the show doesn't lose itself in the silliness of it all, and unfortunately this particular version of Xanadu doesn't achieve this. It is charmingly camp, and boy did I love Sonny's short shorts, but the usage of the same jokes over and over again became tiresome after a while and combined with a simplistic staging it was an okay musical but not one of the more impressive nights I've had at the Southwark Playhouse.
Xanadu is running at Southwark Playhouse until 21 November 2015. You can book tickets here.