It's always really sad when you see a production which despite superb reviews and excellent word of mouth, gets its notice after far too short a run. This is certainly the case with “Showboat”, currently playing at the New London Theatre. Daniel Evans’ beautiful production opened at the Sheffield Crucible in December of 2015, and transferred to the New London on April 9th 2016.
The day before I attended the show, on 11th May, it confirmed its closure on August 27th, 5 months before its ‘booking to’ date.
Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II crafted a stunning score back in 1927, which has stood the test of time, and is shown off magnificently by the talented cast of this revival. What Daniel Evans has managed to do so well is balance the serious topics within the plot with directorial approach which makes the production an joyful and uplifting experience; not an easy thing to do when juggling interracial relationships, the struggles of the African American community, and the bigotry which took place in the 1880s in the South. Maintaining a strong sense of the operetta style present throughout the score, Evans and his choreographer Alistair David have created a heartwarming ensemble piece, full of song, passionate dance and a wonderfully rich sound in the full cast numbers. The production is directed with precision and clear consideration of the characters and their journey. At times it is easy to forget how old the score actually is, as despite the design of the period, the characters have a contemporary resonance. There are a number of stand out performances from the central cast, making the production an absolute joy to behold. Emmanuel Kojo and Sandra Marvin bring a real sense of soul to their characters, not to mention outstanding vocals. Rebecca Trehearn’s gut wrenching rendition of “Bill”, and Danny Collins’ Schultz brim with unstoppable energy and vitality, and this is clearly not confined merely to the principles; this a production with an extremely strong company.
Lez Brotherson’s three dimensional thrust design suits the New London auditorium well. The suggestion of the ‘boat’ and jetty pushing into the audience invites us into the world of the story, and deeper than that, serves as a visual layering to match the emotional layers of the plot. The “show” being performed on the boat, the issues of race and treatment of the black community, and the love affairs of the younger characters all begin in one place, however when the plot takes us to different parts of America, the simple projections on the back wall allow us to be transported instantly. This device was particularly successful when combined with the use of the aisles in the auditorium by the waiters, making us feel as though we were in the club with Captain Andy and his lady friends. The vibrancy of the epic MGM musical film of 1951 was somehow captured without the use of glitz and glamour. The simplicity of the wooden panelling, and the different levels of the boat were enough structure for Evans to stage his cast in such a way that the performers shone without relying on gimmicks. Too often these days the design of a production masks inferior direction or performance, however in the case of “Showboat”, the set provided a beautiful backdrop for the story to be told and the talent to shine.
SHOWBOAT plays at the New London Theatre until 27th August 2016