BWW Reviews: WATER BABIES, Curve Theatre Leicester, May 6 2014
New musical theatre is often showcased in fringe venues to test the water and see if the show could have success on a larger platform. Water Babies, however, has its first outing on the stage of one of the largest producing houses in the country, the Curve in Leicester. The production values are extremely high and it is evident that there is a lot of belief in this project. Judging by what I witnessed last night, this production absolutely needs and deserves a future.
Based on the novel by Charles Kingsley which later became a film, Water Babies focuses on Tom who is framed for a crime that he didn't commit. After a string of bad choices, the mysterious Mrs D leads him to a waterfall where, if he jumps, he can escape capture and essentially rewrite his mistakes. When traipsing through the depths of the ocean to try and get home, he is led to a group of people called the Water Babies. There he has to make the ultimate decision.
The show's premise does sound a bit wacky and far-fetched but the morals promoted throughout, along with the fantastic cast of British musical theatre talent and phenomenal creative team, make the production more than just a slightly silly fairy tale. It absolutely works and ultimately is one of the most unique and beautiful pieces of theatre I have seen in many years. It seems like an old story that feels current - there's Victorian and vaudevillian elements mixed in with fresh influences like hip hop and punk. It's an eclectic combination which just works!
Morgan Large's set design is so textured and detailed; he demonstrates why he is one of the most exciting designers of present. He takes a concept and doesn't just look at its face value but also the meanings behind and underlying themes. This design has almost been turned on its head as there are big 'water' influences on land and dry land aspects of the underwater world - incredibly clever. The video design by Jack Henry James also adds another dimension and is used very effectively. Amy Jackson's costume design works wonderfully as part of the vision as well. It is difficult to categorise her concept as there are so many eras that she has drawn inspirations from. The closest I could get it is perhaps gothic chic and the costumes are just brilliant. James Whiteside's lighting design is dominated by pastel colours but all adds to the world they are creating.
Guy Jones, along with director Ed Curtis, is responsible for the book and lyrics for the show. The lyrics in particular are very poignant and the book excels on many levels. The story is fast paced but very infrequently, because of this, small holes in the plot appear. I do believe that with a little more work, this could be easily addressed. Curtis' direction is great and Nick Winston's choreography is inventive and exciting. All of which create a feast for the eyes of audience members.
The music for the production by Chris Egan is very fresh. It is predominantly built up of power ballads - good ones, I might add - but it perhaps would have been nice for a little more variation. The orchestrations are beautiful and vocals delivered brilliantly by the cast.
The entire company are excellent and although there are superb leads, the production would be nothing without the great work from the ensemble. A particularly hilarious trio comes in the form of Jock the Scottish lobster (Andy Gray), Terrance the well-to-do seahorse (Samuel Holmes) and Claude the French swordfish (Tom Davey). The vast majority of the terribly witty material is delivered by the talented threesome and balances out nicely alongside the deep and meaningful side of the story.
Louise Dearman as Mrs D is just sublime. Every time she speaks or sings, she has the audience in the palm of her hand. Her rich and silky vocal tone is exquisite, I could listen to her all day - her latest album 'It's Time' is on repeat in my car at the moment! Mrs D is a more mature character and her experience shines through to achieve this. I've no doubt she will be the next female household musical theatre name - she is phenomenal.
I am a massive fan of Lauren Samuels and have followed her career since she appeared on BBC's Over The Rainbow search to find Dorothy. She has got better and better over the years and she is more than a match for Dearman, particularly during 'Waiting For You' in Act Two. She is a stunning actress and really had the opportunity to show off her comic timing in Act One. My only criticism is that I felt she was underused as Ellie.
Thomas Milner is our teenage hero type character and he is well cast for the role. Although he keeps making wrong decisions, he is very likeable as Tom and attacks the material with conviction. As the show began, I felt his vocals were a little timid but it didn't take long for him to find his feet and he gives a great performance.
Tom Lister, more commonly known as Carl King from Emmerdale, plays Grimes and Eel. He doesn't really have chance to shine as Grimes at the start of Act One but as Eel, he is fabulous. Lister is charismatic and plays the 'baddie' role extremely well. He jumps between accents with each phrase which is so difficult and considering this is his first professional musical, he is unbelievably good.
There are so many wonderful things about this production and only a few tiny things that I would perhaps like to see done differently. I would urge you to see Water Babies before it closes - I'd jump at the chance to see it a second time.
Water Babies plays at the Curve, Leicester until 17 May 2014.