27 - The Rise of a Falling Star ****

27  Photograph: Nick Ross

A labour of love 3 years in the making, ‘27’ is brought to life through an exciting contemporary score created by Sam Cassidy and Matt Wills. The production is the all too familiar tale of the downfall of an artist put on a pedestal for a short stint in the limelight. There are more than a handful of moments where we are reminded of the likes of Jim Morrison (in a famous image taken from the Best of the Doors album of a bare-cheated lead, arms outspread) alongside the almost uncanny likeness between leading performer Greg Oliver to Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach both in look and vocal depth and intensity. This is not a show in which one could apply the grungy rock look of Cobain, the rock-star stereotype lifts more directly from the 70s and 80s, but despite references to current bands, this nostalgia isn't pronounced enough to preoccupy us with era. The application of the Greek myth of Orpheus in the Underworld runs not only within the plot, but throughout the core production values of the piece, and the choice to caricature certain figures helps to tackle the far-fetched elements of the story. It is the PR team making the ‘star’ who bring a sense of humour to proceedings which permits us to laugh at some of the fitting cliches we all know from today’s obsession with reality TV. This means by the time the plot reaches the depths of hell, we are aware of the ‘tongue in cheek’ nature of the director’s approach. The final scenes bring us back to the message. The mythology is perhaps a little heavy handed but for audiences members who aren't necessarily well read, it makes the piece accessible to them therefore avoiding elitism.

For a first creation Sam Cassidy’s book shows potential; some characters need more personal development to support the clear plot. The concept is extremely strong and the talented leads need more to sink their teeth into, more to make us feel for them, however as one of the first projects to bring rock to the stage in a new and direct form, the experience is bold and packs a punch. The amount of recent shows billed as rock musicals which at the end of the day have merely been conventional musical theatre with a statement informing us ‘This is a rock musical’ has become laughable but in the case of ‘27’, it is refreshing to actually see what is at its core, a rock concert with a plot. This is new ground and will no doubt received mixed reviews, but conventional rules cannot apply when aiming to bring something new to the table. Matt Wills’ score provides the actors with some challenging material; Greg Oliver does a sterling job on ‘Alive’ harnessing the vocal acrobatics to convey the desperation of the character; and Cassie Compton’s Amy, although somewhat undersold, balances the heavier rock numbers with some lighter ballads more familiar to conventional contemporary musical theatre. Indeed the creative aim to produce a rock musical is perhaps why the role in its current incarnation seems somewhat thankless alongside the male lead, however Compton knows how to shape a song to convey the heartbreak of a girlfriend watching the man she loves waste away. 

Ryan-Lee Seager and Lucy Martin have collaborated on choreography which enhances the core themes of the piece, and when coupled with the trademark discipline and precision of Arlene Phillips’ work, help to support Sam Cassidy’s book. From the twitching bodies symbolic of drug abuse, all fingers and wild eyes, to the seductive double work highlighting the lust and sordid taste of the music industry, the hard working ensemble take the form of the Greek chorus; embodying theme and emotion in a slick and glamorous fashion. Large dance numbers have the feel of a shiny commercial music video, representative of the false appeal of the industry, while more movement based sequences draw on the visual representation of the narrative. Add to this the three witch-like characters watching from above, reminiscent of the weird sisters in the Scottish play, referred to in this piece as ‘fate’ seemed have been choreographed in great detail, their whirling, contorted limbs replicating the ‘twisted hands of fate’. Whilst on the impact of their choreography, it is also worth mentioning the outstanding vocals of all three performers. From their solo lines to the fusion of their harmonies, they gave an atmospheric surreal quality to the action taking place beneath.

27 lighting Photograph: Nick Ross

Nick Eve’s design again focuses on supporting the concept of the production. Clearly the hot auditorium was caused by the numerous powerful lights but in a few ways, it served the setting of the piece perfectly. It's impossible not to compare the ‘rock concert’ feel of the evening; bright lights spinning and shining in your eyes and the sweaty mosh pit housing us for the duration, to the claustrophobic standing area of Wembley Arena for an actual rock concert.  I was aware of many audience members fanning themselves but to me there was a sensory element to this which transported the audience to a real rock environment. The intricate lighting, although rather extravagant for the small space, added drama and the metallic staging allowed the lighting to take centre stage whilst gave a sense of location to the scenes. 

‘27’ as it stands is full of heart and potential. Although not quite ready for the West End, it has the kind of guts and ambition that leads to a cult following. It is different and experimental, bold and rebellious; and although there are parts that need a subtler brush, when Orpheus quotes Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ in the closing moment is the piece,‘What dreams may come…’ you can't help but feel the team behind ‘27’ want to learn, develop and turn their dream into the kind of creation that brings about a new genre of musical. I can only say it's on its way, is a hugely enjoyable evening and one, I hope, is the beginning of the actual contemporary rock musical.

'27' is playing at the Cockpit Theatre until October 22nd 2016