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The last time I went to Southwark Playhouse, it was to see a musical called Parade I hadn’t really rated at the Donmar three years before but loved second time round. Well, now its the other way round – I loved this at the Bridewell 13 years ago, yet I’m now not so sure it’s a good show (though it is a good production).

Adam Guettel & Tina Landau’s musical tells the true story of a man who is trapped in a cave in Kentucky for several days in 1925 whilst seeking out a new entrance to the show cave he and his family own. A young cub reporter picks up the story and it travels like wild-fire, capturing the imagination of the whole country. A media circus and a commercial carnival ensues, a local mining executive tries to take over the rescue and the family bicker.

The Vaults, Southwark Playhouse’s space in the arches under London Bridge station, is a superb location for a show largely set in a cave – though this does bring some acoustic problems they don’t entirely overcome, and a distance from the audience which doesn’t help you engage with the story and characters. Derek Bond’s staging is imaginative and James Perkins evocative design and Sally Ferguson’s atmospheric lighting cleverly use just eighteen ladders and some rope & boxes.

The score is beautifully played, under MD Tim Jackson, by a lovely combination of string quartet, acoustic guitar / banjo, harmonica and percussion and the performances are uniformly good. Ryan Sampson contrast his superb performance in the Kitchen Sink recently at the Bush with a completely different but equally superb one as the dimunitive cub reporter Skeets. The role of Floyd is a tough one – it carries the first 15 minutes virtually alone yet there are long scenes overground where he’s silent – and the excellent Glenn Carter works hard but doesn’t quite pull it off. I very much liked Kit Benjamin as the mine owner Carmichael and Gareth Chart as brother Homer and the three reporters – Vlach Ashton, Dayle Hodge and Roddy Peters – bring some much-needed fizz in their ‘chorus’ number.

It’s hard to imagine a better venue or a more talented cast, band and creative team, yet it ultimately fails because the subject matter, the story and the sub-operatic score just aren’t good enough. I didn’t feel engaged and the music only occasionally impressed. I felt I was observing a piece of work, not involved in the tale.

These second looks do confound sometimes!

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