Photo credit: Francis Loney
Written by Robert J. Sherman, Bumblescratch seems to have an unlikely starting off point for a musical venture; set during the Great Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666 it centres on a London rat and its cohorts. Then again, when you think about it, many a classic musical is based on farfetched concepts; from rollerskating train carts with a God complex through to the UK miners' strike in the '80s. Yet as long as there is something for audiences to connect to within the show; a likeable character they can relate to or a plotline that resonates with them, then even a farfetched story can become believable.
To commemorate the 350th anniversary of The Great Fire, the Adelphi Theatre played host to a gala charity concert of Bumblescratch last Sunday, starring the likes of Darren Day, Michael Xavier and Jessica Martin. I've had a particular fondness for Michael Xavier after seeing him in The Pajama Game and Sunset Boulevard, and combined with the Sherman name (Robert is son and nephew of the Sherman Brothers, the songwriting duo behind musical greats such as Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) that sold the show to me despite it's peculiar premise.
As the musical is sung-through and for this gala concert lacked any set design beyond a screen with moving images towards the back that felt a little out of place, it required a lot from the actors to transport the audience to the dirty streets and sewers of London in the mid-17th century. With outfits and accents that had more than strong hints of Les Misérables and Oliver, there was definitely a sense of familiarity, though perhaps not related as much to The Great Fire of London as was intended.
With an initially seemingly incoherent plot it did take me a little while to feel immersed in the story. Similarly to Cats (why this musical isn't called Rats is beyond me), a large part of the first act is spend introducing the various characters in their own dedicated songs and scenes. Mostly all with Bumblescratch bumbling on stage too, mind, as Darren Day took on the majority of the 37-number long set list. He did so with plenty of gusto and his enthusiasm and impeccable comic timing ensured that despite many of the songs not being hugely memorable, I still felt compelled to continue watching him. The book, or lack thereof, would have suffered a far less kind faith in less capable hands.
Next to Day, another great performance among the cast was young Ilan Galkoff, taking on the role of Bumblescratch's unofficially adopted son Perry. Galkoff's voice was confident and worthy of the West End stage, and even though this was more a concert than a full-blown musical, his acting was a delight to watch as well and his cheeky antics really lifted the scenes he was in.
The final stand out of this production, though severely underused, was Michael Xavier as Hookbeard; a spirit seen by Bumblescratch in his dreams after gorging one too many times on bad cheese. His swashbuckling swagger oozed arrogance and it was clear he had a lot of fun with the part. The performance of Jessica Martin, who was also billed as part of the leading cast, paled in comparison. Whether an odd directing choice or simply not being up to scratch for the part, her shouting singing didn't do the songs any favours.
Music wise, the set list was nice albeit mostly unmemorable. In the first act At Least a Rat 'As Got An Excuse was delightful and reminiscent of Jungle Book's Bare Necessities and other songs that did feel like future classics were Adorable Me (the epitome of adorability, really showing off Galkoff's delightful stage presence) and Music of the Spheres. The second act, darker in tone and not as densely packed with musical numbers, felt a little underwhelming in comparison to the first, however Day and Xavier's duet I Cannot Hear You was the undeniable stand-out of the evening. A bit more panto than the rest of the show, but so much fun.
With just a few weeks of rehearsal time for the cast and musicians, they put on an admirable production. While the book, and some of the songs, are not yet ready to grace a West End stage on a daily basis, there is a lot of potential there and I enjoyed watching the gala concert exploring the material. If anything, it opened up my eyes that I could potentially hallucinate Michael Xavier in pirate gear after eating cheese, which is never a bad thing. So far no luck, but I will persevere!
Many thanks to Theatre Bloggers for the invite to see the show in exchange for an honest review.