Waterloo East Theatre, nestling in the railway arches by the station, is offering Striking 12 by Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda as their first Christmas production. The almost entirely sung storyline, using a range of rock, pop, folky and sub-Sondheim musical forms, has three parallel tracks - a group of actors, a bah-humbug bloke wallowing in his own misery as the time approaches midnight one New Year's Eve and Hans Christian Andersen's Little Match Girl.
Fusing these three elements isn't entirely successful; the first, the actors themselves, occasionally breaks through the fourth wall, disrupting the narrative flow. This was particularly evident with one out-of-the-blue aside to the audience by The Girl and a later scene where the drummer (Roger Woods) protests at being given the rubbish parts. A funny moment which gave him the chance to flaunt his top-notch drumming skills but felt out of place in the context of the piece.
The other two storylines are more successfully interspersed. The young Victor Meldrew character, nicely portrayed and sung by Simon Bailey, has broken up with his fiancee, isn't in the mood for celebrating the New Year, and can't be enticed to go out and party. With nothing but unwelcome jollity on the telly, he starts to read the story of the Little Match Girl. The tale echoes his earlier encounter with a young girl who is going door-to-door trying to sell strings of fairy-lights that she claims will counter Seasonal Affective Disorder. The young man's redemption comes in the wake of reading of the Little Match Girl's tragic end when he is moved to feel compassion for this other young girl hawking her wares in the snow. If all that sounds as though it requires a suspension of disbelief too far, well, this is a Christmas story, where magical things are supposed to happen. So it kind of works.
What doesn't work is the sound. The cast of five are all talented musicians and singers, but the sound balance is so far askew that the keyboard, drums and violin combination frequently drown out the singers, forcing the audience to strain to follow the lyrics and plot. Rebecca Bainbridge (violin and supporting characters) plays with great flair, bringing musical poignancy to the quieter moments, though her acting lacks similar subtlety. John Bannister on keyboards injects humour into the story through his portrayal of some of the young man's friends, and Natasha J Barnes brings a sweet pathos to The Girl and Little Match Girl.
This would have attracted a solid four stars if the sound levels hadn't been off-kilter and overall too high. That degree of amplification is surely not needed in a relatively small space like Waterloo East.