When Midnight Strikes @ Finborough Theatre, London

cast list
Nancy Baldwin
Bradley Clarkson
Ben Enwright
Stephanie Flavin
Lorraine Graham
Emma Hatton
Nicholas Moorhead
Susan Raasay
Miles Western
Shona White
Alan Winner

directed by
Fenton Gray
Its almost impossible to walk through the West End without falling over musicals so unapologetically derivative its clear entertainment has finally eaten itself.

There are musicals based on TV shows, musicals following talent shows based on musicals; musicals based on films that came from plays; and – worst of all musicals with not a single original song to call their own, which hurriedly cobble together a dozen chart hits from some fondly remembered band, pocket the money, and run off giggling at the idiocy of the theatre-going public.

Into this sorry state of affairs comes Charles Miller and Kevin Hammonds new musical When Midnight Strikes, set on the evening of December 31st, 1999.

Brimful of fresh songs, it gives a remarkably accurate sense of the brittle gaiety of a New Year party, with all the tensions so often seething behind lipsticked smiles.

Jennifer – played with understated pathos by Stephanie Flavin – is one of those American hostesses who never forgets the celery salt in the Bloody Mary. She has hired a pretty maid to dispense the drinks, there are canaps in the kitchen, and she is wearing her best dress. But she has discovered a letter suggesting her husband is having an affair, and as her guests arrive, the fabric of her marriage begins to unravel.

It is the depth of character awarded each guest that gives the musical genuine warmth. We are delighted when Muriel the sour-faced neighbour, wonderfully played by Nancy Baldwin, transforms into a silk-wrapped siren and falls for Edward, the computer nerd (Ben Enright). When it becomes apparent that brash Zoe of the dubious morals (Susan Raasay) has been quietly in love with her host for years, we are moved. Even the sassy maid Josephina (Lorraine Graham) has her moment in the spotlight: her regretful remembrance of her ambitions to act, I Never Learned to Type, is one of the evenings most memorable songs.

Miller and Hammond manage the tricksy feat of threading the music carefully through the play, so that characters appear to break into song naturally, as if we were able to hear their thoughts. Shut Up, for example, cleverly exposes how tiring it is to nod politely to tedious party conversation. The bigger set-pieces, such as the Latin-influenced hymn to cigarettes, Feel Free to Smoke, are thrilling: the cast sings wonderfully as an ensemble, and with infectious joy in the music. Emma Hatton, in her first professional stage role, sings the pop-soul song You Know How to Love Me with such passion and pathos that I was rummaging for a tissue by the end.

It is altogether a satisfying evening; of the many competent songs, there are enough truly memorable ones to occupy the journey home with humming. The dialogue has the snap and crackle of a good sitcom, and the performances are uniformly excellent. Theres plot suspense and a twist or two, bawdy burlesque and grown-up love-trials.

That some of the third-hand nonsense currently hawking its wares in the West End has audiences of thousands, and that this production sits atop a bar in Earls Court, in genuinely infuriating. I advise you to go and do something about it.

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