EFR - Reviews of Armada the Musical

Armada the Musical

Mon 6th – Sat 11th August 2012

reviews

Steve Hartill

at 09:42 on 8th Aug 2012

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'Armada the Musical' is certainly ambitious: a musical on the Spanish Armada and its defeat by the British navy in 1588, which also ties in supernatural elements, a romantic interest and a large showcase of songs all into one hour and twenty minutes. The fact that so many different strands are covered does lead to drawbacks. For instance, the dialogue in the romance between Sarah (Stephanie Bolsher) the female protagonist, and Thomas (Reece McMahon) feels rushed, and some characters lack development and individual identities. Having said that, characters like Dr John Dee (Rob Winlow) are impressive, and his and Sarah’s alleged supernatural powers are an interesting theme, with the character’s ability to break the fourth wall and step out of the play into a narrative function making an interesting relationship between the character and the audience.

The stagecraft of the show is creative, with use of blue and red lighting to illustrate different sections of the play: blue, for instance, is associated with the antagonists, in this case the Spanish, and the red is associated with Dr John Dee and his monologues. The music cues are smooth and accompany the singers effectively, and splitting the minimalist stage down the middle in two allows for two simultaneous scenes to be set up, and for the plot to swap in between smoothly. Speaking of the singers, the ensemble pieces are fantastic: the whole cast work very well together, and although I am not necessarily a fan myself of musical theatre, I found myself engrossed by each song that featured. The songs were also written by Rob Winlow, who also directed the play. The play is well-costumed, including an ensemble feature of red capes for the entire cast that enable involving choreography in a simple fashion.

Queen Elizabeth (Jessa Liversidge) is an entertaining monarch, with a dominating and exasperated ruling style, surrounded by advisors like Lord Walsingham (Will Winlow) and Lord Burghley (Ben Williams) whose scepticism of the supernatural and their own back and forth with the queen allows for some comic elements in the piece. The show, overall, has a lot of potential: the theme of the story being lost in history, of Dr John Dee existing outside of the play due to his supernatural powers, and the ensemble talents of the cast, are all distinct highlights. But the play is hindered by being simply too busy and under-developed: Dr John Dee’s listing of historical facts is an unsatisfying way of providing context, and many elements of the piece feel undeveloped. It is an ambitious project with plenty of potential, but unfortunately stifled: to be a real success, a musical like this feels like it would need more time to develop.

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Leah Eades

at 10:11 on 8th Aug 2012

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Did you know that the British defeated the Spanish Armada thanks to the brave supernatural actions of a young country bumpkin? No, neither did I, but that’s the central premise of ‘Armada: The Musical’, which strangely decided to combine history and psychic powers in this new musical. The results are on the whole good, barring some minor plot flaws.

Written by BBC Radio 2 Golden Oldie Nominee Rob Winlow, the show’s music was better than many musicals’, revolving around beautiful harmonies and held up by a strong cast of singers, although nothing was catchy enough to have stayed in my head. There were many good points about the performance: the leading lady Sarah, played by a very promising Stephanie Bolsher, has a beautiful voice and led the cast well, especially for someone so young. The comedic timing was spot on throughout, with comic support from the narcissistic Sir Francis Drake (Russell Fallon) and his saucy “Roger that!” and from the cynical Lords Walsingham and Burghley (Will Winlow and Ben Williams) - I particularly liked Walsingham’s drawling, sneering voice. The lush period costumes and red hoods, together with the cast’s inventiveness, really brought the piece to life especially given the limited staging and props. Jessica Liversidge played the strong yet vulnerable Queen Elizabeth I to perfection, and her rendition of the Queen’s famous speech “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king” was fantastic.

I did, however, take some issue with the plot. The heroine, Sarah, is meant to be psychic, having been apprenticed to the Royal Astrologer John Dee (played by Rob Winlow), but we never really learn about exactly what she can do, which was frustrating. At one point early on in the production she teleports onto an enemy ship and causes its destruction, but apparently no one thinks to ask her to maybe repeat this trick, and so the focus instead goes on intercepting an enemy message. John Dee, who’s been narrating the plot and making sinister asides for most of the play (example: he persuades Sarah she has to seduce the messenger at the cost of her true love, then sings a song, replete with Derren Brown crazy eyes, about how much he loves manipulation), turns out to be quite a nice guy after all and was never plotting anything, and Sarah’s heroic actions to save Britain mostly occur off-stage, and are relayed in such a way that I just didn’t really understand the ending. Without giving too much away, I was confused as to just what she did to defeat the Spanish, and how this involved her psychic powers. For me the ending was marred by her deus ex machina reappearance that still, in spite of my hopes, gave us no answers.

Overall this was a decent musical and by no means is it unenjoyable or poorly performed - I’d just like some of the creases in the plot ironed out. With a fuller explanation of Sarah’s psychic abilities and more of the final action either happening onstage or being more fully revealed to us, I’d have left the theatre feeling satisfied.

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