‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ (Pleasance Theatre: 19-23 Nov ’13)

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“The songs are catchy, the dialogue’s sharp, and there’s a delightful knowingness to the banter with the audience”

Editorial Rating: Nae Bad 

Who killed Edwin Drood?  Many have wondered – but nobody quite knows, since Charles Dickens’ untimely death left his novel tantalisingly poised before the story’s dénouement.  This high-energy, high-risk production addresses the problem in twenty-first century style, by asking the audience to cast their votes on just who the miscreant should be.  Oh yes!  And by doing the whole thing as a musical.

It sounds an odd proposition, but by the time the curtain falls, it’s clear why Rupert Holmes’ innovative production was acclaimed on its debut in 1985. The songs are catchy, the dialogue’s sharp, and there’s a delightful knowingness to the banter with the audience.  And this student version from the Edinburgh University Savoy Opera Group retains the sense of daring which must have defined this first-ever interactive musical, with a vibe of joyful chaos and the cast electioneering amidst the crowd.

Before the vote can happen, though, there’s a whole load of Dickens to cavort through.  Actor Campbell Keith bears much of the responsibility for driving the plot, and duly gives it both barrels as the villainous Mr Jasper; if you enjoy his powerful early solo number, just wait till you see him dance. Rosa Bud, the target of Jasper’s lecherous affections, is beautifully portrayed by Alexandra Pittock, whose fine singing voice eloquently captures Rosa’s mix of chaste purity and independent spark.  Other stand-outs among the large cast include Ari L’Hevender as a big-hearted lady of ill repute, and Giselle Yonance, who gives a nuanced performance in the title role.

Holmes’ Tony-award-winning book pictures Edwin Drood performed in a late-Victorian music hall – complete with bickering divas, ill-disciplined clowns and a bombastic MC.  It’s a set-up that licenses some glorious over-acting, and EUSOG embrace that liberty with gusto; Austin Nuckols’ Reverend Crisparkle grows especially hilarious as time wears on.

The humour tends to broad parody – ranging from cor-blimey stereotype accents to a long-running lampoon of the entire musical form – and the treatment of a few key scenes might benefit from more light and shade.  In particular, the choir-master’s advances on his pupil Rosa deserve to be more stomach-churning, given the sad procession of stories of real-life abuse which has emerged over the past few years.  It must also be said that there were quite a few genuine bloopers mixed in among the accidental-on-purpose ones, though all were saved with engaging good humour by a supportive and adaptive cast.

So this isn’t the subtlest or most polished of work, but it’s big, it’s daring and it’s a whole load of fun.  What’s more, at a flab-free two-hours-forty, it’s great value too.  It is, in short, exactly what a student musical ought to be; see it if you can.

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Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 20 November)

Visit The Mystery of Edwin Drood homepage here.