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Review: 27 (The Cockpit)

Sam Cassidy and Arlene Phillips co-direct this new British rock musical about the pitfalls of fame

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
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Named after the 27 Club – populated by musicians who died at 27: Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix – that modern myth of tortured genius is just one of several that muddles through this new musical. The Orpheus myth is thrown in, as is a dollop of Macbeth, a bit of Medusa, some Faust. Orpheus has always proved ripe for reinvention, from Monteverdi's L'Orfeo to Anais Mitchell's Hadestown, but here the messy references rarely feel more than attempts to be clever with a boringly predictable, well-worn story: young rock star seeks fame, gets ruined by it.

27 has a book and lyrics by Sam Cassidy, who co-wrote the music with Matt Wills when they were but young, broke wannabe actors and rock stars themselves. It's clearly a heartfelt labour of love, given a big glitzy boost in the shape of director Arlene Phillips – who, conveniently, happens to have worked with Cassidy's mother over the years.

A bombastic rock musical, with a pre-recorded soundtrack of power ballads and guitar-squealing solos, there are the swooping flashing lights of a stadium gig, and predictably sexy and slick dancers in black leather and fishnets. The songs are at their best when they're biggest and brashest; a pop belter from a trio of Fates (or Macbeth witches) that's a phrase away from "It's Raining Men" gets the toes tapping, but there are no real takeaway tunes.

And what's strangely lacking is a matchup between the story and music. Our frontman Jim, who renames himself Orpheus, is only given narrative, dramatic songs about his angst. There's no sense they're his songs, the mega-hits that his band, The Argonauts, play.

Given the plot sees him catapulted to fame in a Faustian pact with a record company exec named Hades (yes, I know), it's therefore never clear whether he has true, rare talent or whether he's just a puppet. "The public will like whatever I tell them to like," sneers Hades, in a satire of the well-oiled, cynical machine of the music business (albeit a satire that feels about 15 years too late). It's hard to want Orpheus to succeed when he appears as manufactured as an X Factor contestant.

By 27, Orpheus is an egomaniacal, heroin-shooting monster; but the public love their celebrities out of control. He's also casually cruel to his girlfriend – a truly simpering, man-saving drip of a role. Things briefly get more interesting after drugs-related tragedy strikes - as it obviously will, the take-home message being "drugs are bad, m'kay" – and Orpheus travels through the underworld to save his girlfriend.

There's nice work from Greg Oliver as the blonde-maned Orpheus and Ryan Gibb and Jack Donnelly as his bandmates, who imbue a degree of normal human warmth to the often flat script; elsewhere, there's a lot wild-eyed, tongue-flicking craziness. Lucy Martin as a hyper-sexed, seductively predatory talent scout - who later turns into Medusa - is particularly over-the-top. As for what Medusa is doing in the Orpheus myth… don't ask.

Yet there is potential in finding parallels between a fame-and-wealth obsessed industry and a dark underworld, and when the show goes full camp, utterly pompous rock-opera-in-hell, it has a certain cultish appeal. But it all falls apart too quickly, Cassidy not seeming to trust his conceits - or even settle on which one he wants to use.

27 runs at the Cockpit Theatre until 22 October

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