Review: KILLING THE CAT, Riverside Studios

New musical cannot claw its way into credit, failing to land on its feet

By: Mar. 23, 2023
Review: KILLING THE CAT, Riverside Studios
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Review: KILLING THE CAT, Riverside Studios At the interval of this semi-staged musical premiere, I was trying to make the pieces coalesce into some kind of coherent whole. Why 'Killing The Cat'? Why Livorno and Hackney? Why did nobody have a mobile phone or access to Google? Why did these two odd couples insist on holding these very strange conversations? Is it worth sitting through the second half?

God knows, new musicals are hard to get on their feet, but with the talent on show here - huge successes on in the UK, the USA and beyond listed for cast and creatives - surely this one had a chance. But then 'the book problem' loomed large - plots that bind a musical successfully are vanishingly rare - and so too the enervating compulsion to include so many songs (26 in this show) that sound just like the one we heard ten minutes ago. It's a wonder anyone tries (and, yes, I'm aware that reviews like this don't exactly help).

We open on Maggie in a TV studio defending her 'science-good, religion-bad' bestselling book, a bit like Christopher Hitchens without the smarts or the complete absence of self-doubt. She's had enough of American hostility and, on the rebound from a bitter divorce, she heads off to Italy in the unlikely company of her (now ex-) sister-in-law, Sheila. Instantly, she meets bare-chested, skinny-jeaned Luke, who has a farm on a hill and caught religion three years previously. They're smitten like a Capulet and Montague, 200 miles north, despite being 30 years or so older.

Meanwhile, two actual teenagers, Heather and Connor, hook up for no reason at all and conduct a kind of platonic affair that feels a little bit cultish in its denial of desire. She hears dead poets talking to her and waltzes about with an unacknowledged privilege that even I found a bit galling, while he is trying to find himself like it's 1968 and he's listened to The White Album once too often.

Warner Brown's book plods on with its stilted dialogue and its circular arguments about the utility of scientific certainty vs spiritual mystery, punctuated by songs that too often merge into one, lyrically and musically. Billy Bullivant, Robert Jane and Georgia Morse play Joshua Schmidt's tunes with real skill, but, kitted out in all-white like a heavenly host, they look a little too on-the-nose. Everybody swears a lot.

The singing is curious. Molly Lynch and Madalena Alberto (Maggie and Heather) seem to be straining against the urge to sing louder to release the emotions within their characters and the music. Amplified in a space in which they could easily do without such assistance, they can't find the soul of the songs in the main, with Lynch's super "All The Dead Poets" providing a glimpse of what might have been. Tim Rogers, Kluane Saunders and Joaquin Pedro Valdes have less to do and get through their work without bringing a vivid sense of the stakes (if any) for Luke, Sheila and Connor. There's so little fun in fundamentalism after all.

There's always a market for the kind of spirituality / self-help / "Is this really all there is?" ... (I want to write mumbo-jumbo, but that's betraying my views) discourse, but it needs to be grounded in the foundations of storytelling: compelling characters, bum-clenching jeopardy, narrative drive. This strange musical lacks all three and never gets going, leaving some ideas done to death and others largely unexplored. It's not clear at all how Maggie and Luke fall in love after they indulged in lust, even less how they propose to make it work or why Livorno and Hackney are name-checked so frequently.

I had a possible answer for the name of the show at the interval. I was expecting a reference to Erwin Schrödinger's famous thought experiment with the simultaneously dead and alive cat proving that science doesn't just avoid uncertainty, but embraces it. Alas the off-putting title seemed more related to the somewhat dispiriting moral that we might be obliged to limit our curiosity if we want to get along with each other and with ourselves. It was not a sentiment with which I could agree.

Killing The Cat is at the Riverside Studios until 22 April

Photo Credit: Danny Kaan



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