Review: Moby Dick (Union Theatre)

Andrew Wright helms the revival of this take on Herman Melville’s classic novel

It's jolly considerate of the producers to provide a synopsis of Herman Melville's epic novel Moby Dick on every seat at the Union, where the musical version is enjoying a 25th anniversary revival. It might prove helpful in case you're attempting to spot any correlation between the plot outline provided and the insane spectacle unfolding in front of you or, if you're sitting on one of the school benches at the front, all around you.

In fact the synopsis is part of the programme for this fundraising performance by the girls of fictitious St Godleys School; there are also some hilarious notes on the exotically named cast members (including, if you will, Fonda Cox, Charity Case and Daisy Mae Blow) and a personal message from headmistress Dame Rhoda Hottie. It's a fun concept and it certainly works better in this intimate space than it did a quarter of a century ago in the massively overblown original staging at the Piccadilly, where it gained notoriety for being Cameron Mackintosh's first flop after huge successes such as Cats and Phantom (both of which are somewhat tiresomely spoofed here).

Yes, Moby Dick The Musical is a far cry from the po-faced, brine-soaked classic of treachery and obsession dreamt up by Melville. Rather it is a crazed mash-up of St Trinians and Rocky Horror, the entire auditorium transformed into a school hall, with somersaulting schoolgirls in every corner, and lashings of audience participation (avoid the front benches if that's not your sort of thing: on press night, '80s pop star Sinitta was coerced into making an unscheduled guest appearance actually AS the Good Ship Pequod no less.)

The poppy, bouncy score is by Hereward Kaye and Robert Longden, both also responsible for the book which seems to have not been written so much as hurled against a wall and then inspected to see what stuck. This haphazard, devil-may-care approach works well for the initial 45 minutes or so. However, it becomes exhausting in the over-long second half, where lip service is paid to some of the meatier aspects of the original novel, such as an attempted mutiny led by first mate Starbuck (there is a running joke about coffee that you probably don't need me to even describe for you) and Captain Ahab's ultimate demise in the jaws of his nemesis whale.

Andrew Wright's high energy production has many wonderfully inventive touches such as a sea battle enacted in an inflatable paddling pool, and an entire ship being conjured up out of some ropes, a sheet, a gymnasium vaulting horse and a step ladder. It suffers though, much like the show itself, from seldom being quite as camp and funny as it thinks it is.

The hard-working, strong-voiced cast give it their all, mugging shamelessly and dancing up a storm. Ultimately though, for all their good humoured high spirits and undeniable talent, one longs for them to stop trying quite so hard. Brenda Edwards sings like a true diva as Ahab's long lost Esta, although the ongoing gag regarding her fury at being written out of the story so early on runs out of steam pretty quickly. Rachel Ann Rayham as school swot Dinah Sores (geddit?!) playing narrator Ishmael has a gorgeous voice and nice comic timing, while Perola Congo is delightful as her "primitive" sidekick Queequeg.

The bona fide star performance of the night comes from Anton Stephans, magnificently funny as raddled headmistress Dame Rhoda -all faux gentility and wonky spectacles – who gives herself the plum role of deranged Captain Ahab. With a manic gleam in his (her?) eye and an unerring understanding of exactly how much tongue should be left in cheek, Stephans is an eccentric, compelling delight. He also, in numbers like the act two ear-worm "Can't Keep Out The Night", unleashes a formidable voice. The moments when the production truly takes comic and musical wing tend to be Stephans'.

Although it undoubtedly outstays its welcome, this raucous, good-natured romp is worth a look for the outrageous lead performance and for anybody who saw the original version and wants to encounter this silly but catchy score again. Just don't go expecting to come out knowing any more about the plot of Moby Dick (the novel) than you did going in.

Moby Dick runs at the Union Theatre until 12 November.