|"Sexy Jewish Princess Averts Genocide"|
by Jim Kelly for remotegoat on 31/05/09
As I suspect may be the same for many people, my knowledge of the Old Testament falls in two parts. There's the part at the beginning (Eden, Ark, Red Sea, Shall I kill my son because the voice in my head tells me too, hmm?) that we were force-fed on a sort annual spin cycle at primary school, and then there are the one or two wackier sections from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, regularly regurgitated by desperate stand-up comedians when the rest of the of their material goes phut! The Book of Esther (the source of the Jewish festival of Passim) and on which Heroine: The Musical is based, is new to me, falling in the three quarters of the Bible I'd always thought of as white noise; the bits included simply to pad the text out to official coffee-table book proportions.
After the performance I went back and read The Book of Esther. It's filled with lots of deaths and unhappy relationships and prostitution rings and quasi-legalistic justifications for bopping off your enemies ― such as during the book's happy ending, which is only a happy ending in the way that say the Nuremberg trials were a happy ending.
Anyway it's horrible and gruesome and dull and confusing, even if the main story is of a princess who prevents genocide. I suppose, had I grown up in an illegal West Bank Settlement, Heroine might be my favourite musical because, unlike for example Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, it sticks remarkably close to the psychotic, humourless original text. But I didn't. And as a result Heroine feels like a long grim trip.
Unsurprisingly there are lots of ways in which the Old Testament plot isn't best suited to musical theatre: for example Esther is separated from childhood sweetheart Teresh and sold into the slavery of rapist and bon-vivant, King Xerxes. Teresh, though admittedly bumptious, is also idealistic, romantic and loyal, and once Esther is abducted he dumps his preppy WASP clothes, adopts a disguise and vows to protect her.
King Xerxes by contrast is debauched, self-pitying, easily manipulated and almost continuously drunk. He wanders around in tight white underwear and a natty robe just like the one worn by King Leonidas the lion in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. He's also hung up about his ex, Queen Vashti; though why he should be is a mystery as she's almost as gobby and moany as the gobby moany woman off the Apprentice.
King Xerxes, however, turns out to be a tremendous hit in the sack and in a very sweaty scene just before the interval, Esther falls head over heels, then heels over his shoulders, then upside-down wheelbarrow style, then weird contortion that seems to place most of her body weight on his left elbow, in love with him. Esther forgets Teresh, so that when he reappears shortly after the interval it's only to be promptly strangled to death.
Then there's the baddie - Haman, the Agagite. He's rude and wears black and is a bit camp and isn't much good with women and quotes Hitler and is plotting to kill all the Jews in Persia - so I suppose you could, in the grand scheme of things make a case for hanging him, even in a musical. But his family as well? His children? Really? A musical in which children get hanged to death? Not really mainstream, is it?
Perhaps inevitably the direction generally matches the style of the plot. When the cast play Jews they dress as if they've just escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto (an effect subtly undermined by dance moves apparently nabbed from S-Club Juniors). When they act as Persians, the men wear black t-shirts while the women are squelched into silver PVC cat-suits like extras from an episode of Buck Rogers.
And then there's possibly my favourite am-dram cliche of all: cast member with ballet experience, all in white, lurching through the backdrop of various scenes shedding rose petals and ― because ballet is always serious (it's too expensive not to be) ― remembering not to smile! She had nothing to do with the plot and never spoke, so I guess on this occasion she was simply the Goddess of Thesbianism.
I should mention the songs, which, to be fair, are relatively good. No doubt they would be improved by a fuller sounding accompaniment than can be offered by a single piano. The main number 'Always on the Outside' is hummable and even likeable.
The singing is mixed, though the leads are both excellent. Similarly the acting is generally good and never less than fully committed, even though the dreadful cod-Shakespearean dialogue frequently has the cast chewing glass.
Heroine is a bit bonkers, fitfully engaging, embarrassingly humourless and much, much too long. But I don't want to slam it any further. The Credit Crunch is already affecting funding and attendances throughout theatreland. For some companies and theatres a time of valediction approaches. And, so while we still can, all praise the madness of shows like Heroine: it would be duller London without them.
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