Book and Lyrics by John Dempsey
Music by Dana P Rowe
On the verge of the presidency, Reed Chandler, a family man with ambitious wife Violet and handsome, if ne'er do well, son Cal, suffers a setback. In the over-excitement of a private Miss Whiplash encounter he literally has a heart stopping moment and dies.
His brother Grahame, a crippled Harvard-educated Machiavellian lawyer agrees with his sister in law Violet, a cross between Jackie O and Cruella De Vil, that the show must go on, with the star now Cal, plucked from playing air guitar in his bedroom, groomed for the Oval Office.
The story was apparently originally based on Robert Graves's novel "I, Claudius", itself already given various movie, theatre and TV adaptations, charting corruption and conspiracy in imperial Rome
It's a lively if flawed piece matched by a production with the same qualities and faults directed by Michael Strassen. There are echoes of Pygmalion, Dorian Gray and even a mention for Aristophanes' The Birds as well as a hefty Shakespearean dollop alongside the Roman decadence,
Fra Fee as the tousled haired Cal who goes from Marlon Brando white T shirt andjeans to suited and unexpectedly charismatic, if drug-addled, politician looks the part, even if his singing when tackling rock numbers such as One, Two, Three is slightly underpowered in the first act. However he proved sweet voiced and clear in the quieter numbers.
As the mafia honeytrap lover and small fry drug pusher, Tina McCoy, Madalena Alberto again looks the part and also, despite lacking diction in the first act while having the vocal strength, eventually comes into her own with both strong vocals and diction in the second act.
Peter Saul Blewden impresses as Reed Chandler, in a Hamlet's father-like ghostly return with the song Control to advise his son, by then a soldier, amidst Middle East minefields. He takes on with equal aplomb another part, the role of mafia don Anthony Gilardi.
Nonetheless the show belongs to Grahame, whose dark second act song First Came Mercy with its mix of religion and politics is a tour-de-force, and Violet with Ken Christiansen and Lucy Williamson respectively.
Grahame on crutches, a Claudius stutterer, whom Christiansen invests with an interesting mix of villainy and vulnerability, forms a partnership with Violet, the single-minded Jezebel, whose whole raison d' être centres on making the men in her life the country's power players.
There is also a strong professional debut from Sam Barrett in the smaller role of the Presidetial bodyguard Peter.
Despite being revised since its first production, it still feels very much a 1990s' piece. The to and fro between Grahame and Violet on the one hand and Cal on the other also throws into relief the problems of an unbalanced book
The introduction of I Claudius into a Kennedyesque late twentieth century political dynasty feels inconsistent and scattergun. The analogy between Cal and a manufactured rock star is truncated as, in the end, is Grahame's story. In fact it's Violet who has the best, most consistent dramatic arc with a satisfying finale to her story.
Sitting in the third row there was a sightline problem as the characters fell to their knees for some of the action. Some of the lyrics also became hard to hear as the characters retreated towards the back wall.
Nevertheless there is fine choral singing with an excellent bandn- keyboards, guitar, bass and drums - led by Josh Sood
It's a solid start to the Union Theatre's new venue with plenty to enjoy in an energetic show with a strong narrative drive even if the book feels somewhat forced. So we elect an amber light for this presidential piece.