Eugenius! (The Other Palace, London, until March 3rd)
The brassy strapline for Eugenius! asserts that you already want to see the new show again before you’ve even entered the theatre. It’s a bold claim for a homegrown musical about which there has been a buzz since a one-off concert version at the Palladium in 2016, but based on this colourful and immensely enjoyable production at The Other Palace, it’s justifiable. Not only will you want to go and see this again, you will also want to buy the merchandise, play the cast recording until it wears out, cosplay your favourite character – and then go and see it AGAIN.
This throwback to the 80s is a pastiche of comic book heroes, 70s and 80s sci-fi culture, the music and style of the 80s and a lot more besides. Forget the murmurings of PC naysayers: Eugenius! has the potential to be a cult classic in the same groove as The Rocky Horror Show, Return to the Forbidden Planet and Little Shop of Horrors, boasting catchy songs, witty dialogue and sheer silliness, all of which keep a smile etched on your face. It’s funny, it’s witty, it’s heartwarming, it’s super duper, it’s zero cool, it’s Eunique, and dare one say (with respect to one of its writers) it’s A1.
Created lovingly by the frontman of 90s pop group a1, Ben Adams, and Chris Wilkins, Eugenius! is often daft, always hilarious and bursting with a liveliness that must leave its cast exhausted by the interval, let alone by the time the rousing anthemic title song raises the roof and the audience to its feet at the finale. The enthusiasm of all involved is infectious and the triumph of this show that never takes itself too seriously is that there are enough twists and turns to ensure that we are never served with anything too predictable.
From the moment Brian Blessed’s stentorian narration opens the show (and yes, there’s even a “Eugene is alive!” reference for the fans later) it is clear that this is going to be a flying saucerful of fun, packed with nudges and winks for those familiar with the genre, passing nods to the compass of musical theatre, laughs at the expense of a range of 80s icons, all with a lavish sprinkling of the feelgood factor. It makes Spandex acceptable again and even Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, gets in on the action by voicing Kevin the Robot, a gloriously tacky creation that makes Dalek sink plungers look positively 25th Century chic.
At its charming heart is a rite of passage story about a bullied school boy, Eugene, with few friends and with a passion for the escapism that comic books can provide. His self-illustrated Tough Man and Super-Hot Lady comics win him the chance to make movies in Hollywood – but his fictional imaginings turn out to have more than a grain of truth. The comic book heroes and villains are revealed as all too real when their home planet of Itsaballoon pops and they have to flee to the stars.
Making his West End and UK debut Liam Forde is strong and dynamic as Eugene, instantly lovable as the geeky hero tempted by fame and saved by love. As with many of the performances here it is an achievement which should have producers beating a path to his door and his is but one name we need to be watching out for in the future. Ben Adams himself sang the role at the concert performance and on the CD, so it’s a hard act to follow, but Liam makes the role his own, all teenage gawkiness and eagerness to succeed.
Laura Baldwin (no stranger to The Other Palace, having been in Big Fish and The Little Beasts) is a sassy Janey, the best friend who is more likely to attract Eugene’s attention by wearing a Fraggle Rock t-shirt than by obvious displays of romance. Daniel Buckley goes from strength to strength, constantly stealing the show as Feris, the sidekick never afraid to step over the line of acceptability or respectability – Who’s That Guy and the No Pants Dance are utter showstoppers. If this performance doesn’t win awards (and for that matter if this show doesn’t scoop them) then we all need to eat our space helmets.
Tremendous stuff too from Ian Hughes as Evil Lord Hector, the power-crazed sadistic invader; Shaun Dalton’s hunky droolsome Tough Man (He’s tough but fair/And he has perfect hair) who is contrasted superbly with an all-too-recognisable Hollywood superstar in the shape of Gerhard; Cameron Blakely’s hard film producer Lex; Scott Paige’s deliciously camp Theo, and Melissa James as a steamy Carrie.
All the vocal performances are outstanding – there isn’t a weak link in one of the best ensembles currently gathered on a London stage. Potential alien invaders should remember to beware of geeks airing riffs so marvellously. The writers have come up with a show packed with memorable and well-crafted songs which are well-delivered throughout, from the laughably quirky to the soaring power ballads. Just when you think you’ve heard your favourite and are humming along, another bounces in which you love even more.
Drawing it all together, the dependable Ian Talbot directs with flair and a sense of cheeky enjoyment. Darren Lord directs the small band from the keyboards with boyish vivacity, Hannah Wolfe’s design is vibrant, Aaron Renfree’s choreography is breathlessly imaginative and Andrew Ellis’s lighting and Gareth Owen’s sound designs add a further dimension to the overall period pot pourri.
Credit too to Warwick Davis and the production team for daring to have faith in this small show with big ideas and even greater promise.
Eugenius! is a fresh new show that deserves to succeed and grow as a rival to the biggest and best of its more established fellows. In the words of one of its songs it doesn’t just shoot for the stars, it shoots higher and its future is definitely meteoric. It is truly a genius show that is out of this world.
Image: Pamela Raith
A version of this review originally appeared on The Reviews Hub http://www.thereviewshub.com/)