No Sex Please we’re Shakespearean: Love’s Labour’s Lost at the Hackney Empire

Saturday 1st July 2017

As always, the Royal Academy of Music Musical Theatre department are on trend with their latest end of term production of ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’, the musical.  Shakespeare has long provided rich pickings for those looking for a story to adapt from ‘Kiss Me Kate’ through ‘West Side Story’ to the doubly morphed ‘Return of the Forbidden Planet’.  We are not sure that this particular adaptation will reach the classic heights of those examples, but Michael Friedman and Alex Timbers have captured a twenty-something sensibility which is an excellent fit for students of musical theatre, indeed students anywhere.

The plot remains largely the same – the ‘King’ decides to take a vow of abstinence and persuades his three friends to join him in seclusion and philosophical study.  Meanwhile the Princess from a neighbouring ‘kingdom’ and her sidekicks is on her way over to do some ‘business’.  Needless to say, the vow doesn’t last long.

We have to be honest – this is pretty lightweight material, and a brave undertaking to replace Shakespeare’s poetry with music.  However, we can’t imagine this piece getting a better showcase.  Director Bruce Guthrie and his team have squeezed every last opportunity out of the material.  Set designer Loren Elstein gives us a fantastic design concept of a hotel lobby with lifts, multiple levels and doors, and the obligatory bar.  It is perfect for the farcical situations which will follow.  The direction is tight, maintaining a high level of energy and lots of little interludes which keep the action flowing.  There are plenty of moments for everyone.

The excellent cast are extremely versatile, and we are not sure if this is a compliment or not, but they left us wanting to see more of them.  We couldn’t help wishing for slightly more sophisticated material which might stretch them a bit more.

Having said all that there was some notable talent on display and plenty of high points.  As the King, Benjamin Froehlich perfectly conveyed the privilege of his position coupled with the uncertainty of youth and a hint of pomposity, and his vocal performance was impressive.  As Berowne, Jack Reitman looks like the odds-on favourite to break the vow first, but is ultimately beaten to it by his more pious friends.  He uses his charm and comedic talent to good effect in a series of mock-philosophical musical monologues.  Conor McFarlane as Dumaine and Charlotte Christensen as Maria make a delightful couple, especially in their fantasy sequence in which she appears as a wood nymph summoned by his musical prowess.  Laura Fuller’s Rosaline is worthy match for Berowne, dignified but vulnerable.  Sherelle Kelleher as barmaid Jaquenetta has a feisty presence and a nice line in perpetual confusion, and shows her soft side with a beautifully delivered soliloquy ‘Love’s a Gun’.  Johan Munir has a gift of a role with Don Armado, a figure of fun who completely wins us over with his over-the-top attempts to woo Jaquenetta.  Munir pulls out all the stops in his signature song ‘Jacquenetta’, and his comic scenes with Moth (Niall Docherty) are priceless, with Docherty trying to teach him some ‘moves’ to a jazzy sountrack.  Docherty does get a moment in the spotlight to sing about his love of cats, which he does with remarkable sincerity.  These two light up the stage every time they come on.

There are some great ensemble numbers, Don Armado’s show-stopping ‘Jaquenetta’ being one of them.  The hotel staff nicely undermine the shallow love-games of the main characters with their number ‘rich people’, and the Brabant song wittily dissects the characters’ attempts at flirtation.  But we have to nominate the East German post-modern dance sequence as the hilarious high point of the show when the four suitors try to express themselves with a dance that appears to be the bastard love-child of Kraftwerk and Marcel Marceau. Literally, indescribable.

We can’t help yearning a little for more challenging material for the RAM students – remember, this the institution that has previously given us Follies and Sweeney Todd, but it’s great to see a fresh crop of graduates with such an array of talent on show.

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