Here’s yet another irreverent musical, this time taking comic books and their creators as its subject, full of tongue-in-cheek fun and aspiring to cult status. A transfer to the Ambassadors Theatre was announced and cancelled just today. Let’s hope the breaking news is just a postponement to future success. The show is primed to do well by Ian Talbot’s admirably ambitious direction, which ensures that Ben Adams and Chris Wilkins’ piece impresses. There’s plenty of enjoyment to be had, even if Eugenius is a tame affair that too gently pokes fun at theatre and heroics: it’s competent, entertaining and only just short of super.
Reservations arise not just because the piece is derivative, although you will probably recognise a lot of other shows that have inspired it. Adam and Wilkins’ book is a bit messy and the humour tepid. There’s a coming-of-age story that’s whisked to Hollywood just as it’s settling down, with a clumsy competition device where our hero’s unpublished comic is to be turned into a film. Then there’s a half-developed struggle for integrity before the fictional world of ‘Tough Man’ collides with reality to provide us with moral lessons. None of this is bad, although the lyrics are strictly functional, but it’s Talbot who powers the show.
Much is made of time and setting – America in 1988 – and the show cleverly cashes in on nostalgia. But the nudges to recollection are superficial, achieved by constantly throwing in references. There’s little effort to make the characters specific either. Their ages are a bit of puzzle and another niggle is ignoring how snobbish comic book geeks can be! It’s unbelievable that they would be so egalitarian with their references. Here it’s the performances that win out. Rob Houchen makes for an appealing lead as Eugene, likewise his love interest Janey and best friend Feris are engagingly performed by Laura Baldwin and Daniel Buckley. The whole cast gets the chance to shine with a lot of dual roles as Eugene’s fantasy connects with real life: Christopher Ragland and Simon Thomas both benefit.
It’s a shame that the love story in Eugenius is so predictable. Comics themselves have been challenging since before people started using the term heteronormative – so it’s odd to end up making fun of something more sophisticated than your own parody. The role of Janey is particularly unsatisfying, no matter how much irony is intended. Thankfully, when it comes to the most important thing – the music – Adams and Wilkins are on firmer ground. They can write a catchy tune and the score coheres well at several points. There’s a nice mix of pastiche and sincerity that offsets a lot of contrived moves. It may be a case of promise rather than something to rave about, but Eugenius deserves success.
Until 21 October 2018
Photos by Scott Rylander