Review: TROMPE L'OEIL, The Other Palace

A bewildering new musical

By: Sep. 30, 2023
Review: TROMPE L'OEIL, The Other Palace

Review: TROMPE L'OEIL, The Other Palace Trompe L’Oeil is a French phrase meaning trick of the eye, or optical illusion. Coincidentally, when said out loud it sounds rather a lot like ‘Trump loyal’. Most people who notice this similarity would likely shrug it off and move on with their day. Henry Parkman Biggs, however, decided it would be the perfect title for a musical bewilderingly combining a satire of Trump’s presidency with visuals of Surrealist art, and also, according to the show description, a queer love story. 

This show is exactly as strange as that sentence suggests. Entering the small studio space, audience members are greeted with a towering hot pink set, complete with a larger-than-life graphic of the Donald himself. American politics are briefly forgotten as the ensemble takes to the stage. The opening number has clear Cabaret influences - braces, French accents and Fosse-style dance are met with a distinctly queer sensibility. It’s a promising start. 

From this point on however, things just get weirder and weirder. We’re presented with two stories in parallel. In the first, Trump (Emer Dineen) makes a deal with Putin (Sarah Louise-Hughes): the Russian will help him keep power on the condition that Trump has a vice on his scrotum that Putin can use to cause him pain. We go on to meet Ivanka (Olivia Saunders), dressed up like a sex doll, and a sentient Statue of Liberty (Craig Bentley). Meanwhile, everyman Republican Rip (Alex Wadham) has his views challenged when he falls for drag queen Demi (Dominic Booth), unaware of her real identity. The two halves briefly interact, but are broadly kept as two separate threads, with scenes alternating between them.

In both stories, there’s also the idea that one cannot say the word “surreal”. It’s not long before we find out why: saying the “s word” results in your limbs becoming jumbled up like a painting. This nod to Surrealist art is one of many: there are lots of Escher-style black and white costumes, and Magritte-inspired apples. None of these, however, seem to have any meaningful connection to what’s going on. 

Trompe L’Oeil is a deeply, deeply surreal show, but not in the way it wants to be: I spent a lot of the show wondering what on earth I was watching. Not only do both plotlines make little to no sense, its form is equally confused. Part of the concept of the musical is that most of the songs are riddles or “textual illusions” - including lyrics in the rhythm of Dr Seuss, lyrics with hidden anagrams, and lyrics avoiding the letter E in the style of novelist Georges Perec. It’s a fun idea, but most of these tricks are only really noticeable when seen written down, which famously is not how musical theatre works. 

To their credit, the cast tackle this bizarre material with skill and fervour. Sarah Louise Hughes as ‘The Imitator’ gives a particularly impressive performance, shifting between characters with ease and commanding the stage. We’ve seen a lot of Trump impressions since 2016 and even before, but Emer Dineen’s is a solid one. Ensemble member Yasmin Sharp shines through in the dance numbers - this is a strong company making the best of their material. Set designer Justin Williams has also done a stellar job, and director/choreographer Blair Anderson infuses the piece with a slick, fun movement style.

If Trompe L’Oeil were merely a confusing musical that would be one thing, but it also wades into questionable morals. The romance between Rip and Demi is, presumably, the "queer romance" the show is apparently about, but this feels like a kind of stretch. For the bulk of the show, Rip is unaware that Demi isn’t a cisgender woman, and the language used often floats towards transphobic territory (he sings about her being a "manly woman" for example). The resolution of their story presents them both as equally at fault, which is a very strange take, especially for a show that proclaims itself to be queer. The overall moral of the show appears to be that we should all forgo our differences and just get along - which in most situations would be fair, but in a discussion about Trump maybe isn’t the best message to give.

Another very confusing aspect of Trompe L’Oeil is its marketing. The show is described as a combination of “cabaret, musical theatre songs, politics, queer theatre, and circus” on the theatre’s website, but there is no mention of Donald Trump whatsoever. In absolute contrast to this, in parts of the programme and some press emails the show’s title is Trump L’Oeil. Here we have further proof that this is a show that’s unsure what it is: what’s being advertised as a new queer musical is in fact more of a weird political satire. And the show’s overall relationship to queerness feels a little murky - sure, there’s something of a queer aesthetic, and there’s drag, but not much more. 

The writing isn’t entirely irredeemable - there are some real laugh out loud moments, and a sense of fun that makes this show generally entertaining. Biggs’ writing is just misjudged and over-ambitious - it’s clear from the show’s history that it’s been quite a toil, but perhaps what was needed was a little more simplicity. There are at least three potential shows here, all of which could to varying degrees work - I would especially be interested in seeing a production that focuses on the surrealism and illusions rather than the politics. 

In many ways, this is exactly the kind of work we’d expect from The Other Palace - the venue is known for its commitment to new musicals, often those with a queer slant. At the same time, Trompe L’Oeil feels like it would likely land better in the US, where its previous runs took place, and some of its morally questionable moments feel at odds with the venue’s ethos. 

Bizarre and bewildering, Trompe L’Oeil doesn’t really work as a musical. Nonetheless, it’s an evening of entertainment that does have to be seen to be believed. It’s not what you expect - and maybe in that sense, it’s the ultimate trompe l’oeil. 

Trompe L'Oeil runs at The Other Palace (Studio) until 15 October

Image Credit: Danny Kaan 

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