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Review: Adding Machine (Finborough Theatre)

Joshua Schmidt's oddball musical runs until 22 October

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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This musical adaptation of the 1923 play by Elmer Rice is very, very odd. It's pretty much like no musical I've ever seen. It's a dark, totally surreal semi-morality musical that looks at whether a life lived under the cosh of The Man is really a life at all. Joshua Schmidt's music blends everything from prog-rock, to jazz to soul to gospel. It's a fairly remarkable thing.

That being said, Adding Machine is definitely not a song-and-dance crowd pleaser that will have everyone who sees it humming in their seats. This is musical as agitprop which revels in absurdity, echoing the grotesquery of expressionist painters such as Georg Grosz and Max Beckmann. I really liked it, not everyone will.

The story follows Mr Zero, a man who for 25 years has toiled at his factory-like accountant job, until he's told he's being replaced by a machine. It is in that meeting that he stabs his boss. He's put on trial, is hanged and finds himself somewhere a little like heaven. But though Mr Zero quite likes it at first, his conditioning on earth – being a worker – means he struggles with the freedom.

The musical touches on the industrial revolution and how the population can be controlled through work. It also demonstrates why the phrase ‘ignorance is bliss' is so often true: it's hard to face life after you've spent years avoiding it. Mr Zero - so pointedly close to being Mr Hero - becomes an embodiment of that phrase as he crumbles under the possibilities he is offered over the course of the piece.

Some of Schmidt's songs made my jaw drop. They are an un-categorisable mash of genres that are at times horribly discordant and others satisfyingly melodious. The songs blend into each other, so that there's little actual speech which adds to the pure whirlwind of thoughts and actions on the stage. I thought "Zero's Confession" was great, but these aren't songs you'll catch straightaway. They are the sort you need to take home and listen to.

Josh Seymour's traverse staging is simple and neat and works very well with the help of Neill Brinkworth's excellent lighting design. There are more than a few colourful surprises in Frankie Bradshaw's otherwise very dark designs, too. The cast are generally strong, with Edd Campbell Bird as Shrdlu dealing particularly well with the tricky tunes.

Adding Machine is a wonderfully brave piece. A musical that plays with form and song in a way unlike much else that you'll see in the genre at the moment. It's a breath of fresh air.

Adding Machine runs at the Finborough Theatre until 22 October.

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