This curate's egg of a show is effectively Coram Boy meets Les Miserables, to which several musical numbers owe a lot - arguably too much.
The titular hatpin is, it eventually transpires, the murder weapon used by an unspeakably evil couple on the make to kill 13 babies on a baby farm in 19th century Sydney. Tragically, but predictably, it is all based on a true story so the narrative packs a pretty powerful punch.
The Hatpin (by Peter Rutherford and James Millar) has done well in Australia and has been produced in New York. Co-produced with Greenwich Theatre in association with Lazarus Theatre, this show at Blue Elephant Theatre is its European première.
Gemma Beaton as Amber Murray - leading bereaved mother - has an unusual quality of stillness which conveys her grief and anguish beautifully. She is also a fine singer. Equally as good is Eleanor Sandars (Harriet) with her appealing and poignant gritty alto voice. She develops her character from hardened cynic to kindly vulnerable friend with real warmth. Katie Alison shines through the chorus numbers and is moving as troubled Marianne Leonard and I enjoyed Hayward Morse’s grave and gravelly work as Justice Stephen.
Director Ricky Dukes makes imaginative use of the stage area with near-Brechtian chorus work which drives the story on. And it’s good to hear unamplified singing in musical theatre making full use of a very resonant space.
But beyond that there are problems. Kate Playdon, as Agatha Makin, overacts anger, evil manipulation and menace to such an extent that her words are often lost. Emma White as her daughter Clara sings pleasingly when she’s in contemplative mood but fails to sing convincingly and comprehensibly through her big dramatic moment in court which feels very forced.
And perhaps too much attention has been paid in rehearsal to slick chorus movement and not enough to ensemble singing? In places it is so ragged that I found myself wondering whether the cast can actually see the musical director (Aaron Clingham) on piano in the wings. There are intonation faults too.
The production, staged on a minimalist set, also relies far too much on the lazy artificial smoke cliché to suggest darkness and despair. It fogs the whole theatre (including the bar in the interval) almost continuously for two gloomy hours.