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American writer / composer Dave Malloy is rather prolific – sixteen shows in the last sixteen years – though I think this is the first we’ve seen here in London; not even his multiple Tony award winning Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 has crossed the Atlantic yet. This original and inventive work is subtitled A Musical Fantasia Set In The Hypnotised Mind Of Sergei Rachmaninoff, which seems like a good opener for a review!

It takes place towards the end of the three year period of depression which followed the negative reaction to Rachmaninoff’s first symphony in 1897, when he was just 24. He’s visited hypnotherapist Dahl throughout and the show uses these sessions as a starting point for tangential leaps into scenes with his wife Natalya, opera singer friend Chaliapin and a host of famous Russians including Chekhov, Tchaikovsky, Tolstoy, Glazunov and Czar Nicholas II.

I liked the idea of having two Rachmaninoff’s, one sitting at the piano playing his music and the other wild and boyish, a bit like Mozart in Amadeus, flitting between scenes expressing what’s inside his head; inner and outer characters. There are original songs, Rachmaninov pieces and hybrids. Even though it’s set in 1900, there are modern references and language which I didn’t think worked particularly well. I did like the idea of having the two keyboard players onstage, Billy Bullivant and MD Jordan Li-Smith, who sounded great.

It’s a rather surreal cocktail which by the interval hadn’t convinced me. The first half closing song, Natalya, and the second half opener, Loop, lifted it, and from then on it was a lot better, and it is a unique piece. Though I have reservations about the material, particularly its structure and unevenness, I have none about Alex Sutton’s excellent production. The design team have done a particularly fine job – Rebecca Brower’s set & costumes, Christopher Nairne’s lighting and Andrew Johnson’s sound – and Ste Clough’s choreography is great.

Tom Noyes as Rachmaninoff the pianist makes a sensational professional debut, playing brilliantly throughout, and singing beautifully in the closing number. Keith Ramsey is terrific as Rach, athletic and manic, on stage for most of the show. They have superb support from Rebecca Caine as Dahl, Georgia Louise as Natalya, Norton James as Chaliapan and Steven Serlin as The Master, the Russian famous five.

It’s whetted my appetite to see more of Malloy’s work, which won’t take long as, like the proverbial bus, another one comes along next month when Ghost Quartet opens the new Boulevard Theatre.

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Having seen this show at long last, I’m flabbergasted this is the first London production since the original almost 40 years ago. The pedigree is extraordinary. Based on Keith Waterhouse & Willis Hall’s Billy Liar, book by Dick Clement & Ian la Frenais, music by John Barry & lyrics by Don Black! It ran for two years at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and it’s the show that gave Michael Crawford his big break. …. and it’s a lovely little show.

Billy is a fantasist and a compulsive liar. He works for an undertaker but spends most of his time in his imagined worlds, which include a country of which he is president and a meeting with Marilyn Monroe. He lives with his somewhat intolerant dad, overly tolerant mum and dippy gran. He’s dating three girls at the same time and claims to have an offer of a job in London as a scriptwriter.

Michael Strassen has given us a handful of excellent productions here at the Union Theatre in the last four years or so and his trademark minimalist style again relies on just a few props with good costumes & lighting. It works well, with choreography that is particularly fresh and chirpy. Keith Ramsey is great as Billy, combining a charming cheeky chappie with an other worldly fantasist and an unfulfilled lost soul. Amongst a very impressive supporting cast, Adam Colbeck-Dunn caught my eye as friend / colleague Arthur.

A long-awaited opportunity to catch up with a truly British musical. Though I can see how a bigger stage would bring benefits (though not as large as Drury Lane!) this chamber version is very welcome indeed.

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