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The Fix (Union Theatre)

The Union opens its new venue with Michael Strassen's "striking and intelligent staging" of John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe's musical

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Ken Christiansen and Fra Fee in The Fix
© Darren Bell

Already a proven hit in the venue's former home, a remounting of Michael Strassen's striking and intelligent staging of The Fix is an excellent choice to introduce the new Union Theatre to patrons. Not only is it a bold, dynamic production, but it also makes inventive use of the new space's permanent features, such as an industrial-looking metal staircase and walkway, and bare brick walls. Visiting the Union would be even more of a pleasure if they could put a bit of a rake on the seating (about 30% of the blocking for this show happens on the floor and is consequently invisible to anybody not sitting in the front couple of rows), and provide some air conditioning (the heat in there on press night was pretty unbearable).

John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe's musical - about the fictional Chandlers, an American potential First Family so treacherous and amoral that they make the Borgias look like the Waltons - has been substantially rewritten since its 1997 premiere at the Donmar directed by Sam Mendes. Whereas that version opened and closed with the funerals of two generations of Chandler men, both presided over by the same unlovely matriarch, this one starts by showing us Chandler Sr expiring in a misjudged sex act with his mistress, thereby setting a suitably raunchy tone.

Strassen is a master at creating vivid, memorable stage pictures by the simplest of means: witness here the metaphorical handing over of power from mother to son on either side of a backlit Star-Spangled Banner; or a spine-chilling electric chair effect conjured up only by squatting, leaning chorus members. He is a thrillingly theatrical director-choreographer who is especially well suited to this kind of edgy, sardonic material.

Having said that, if the Donmar staging suffered from being over-amplified, the opposite is true here. The leads would definitely benefit from being miked as there are moments when they are overcome by the band or the (admittedly superb) choral singing. The biggest casualty of this is Fra Fee as messed-up Cal, the Chandler's greatest hope for the White House. Fee is a fine singer but this role really requires a belting rock tenor. His solo "1-2-3" should rattle the rafters but disappointingly fails to do so here. Furthermore, he doesn't age convincingly and, with his tousled hair and skewiff tie, looks more like a stroppy schoolboy than a serious political contender in the latter stages of the play.

Ken Christiansen is an interesting mixture of compelling and repellent as his damaged, power-playing uncle while Madalena Alberto is genuinely touching as a soft-hearted stripper Cal falls in love with. She also gets arguably the best number in "Mistress Of Deception", a folk-inflected poisoned lament for the American Dream. Alberto delivers it with power and poignancy. Lucy Williamson is stunning as Cal's morally redundant, power-crazed mama Violet. Venomously funny, darkly glamorous and entirely ruthless, she even manages to suggest a layer of buried maternal feeling beneath the glittering, cruel hauteur. Her 11 o'clock number "Spin", where Violet breaks down her twisted modus operandi for us, is as exhilarating as it is chilling, and is one of the most exciting musical moments on any current London stage.

Dempsey's fast moving book is as compulsive as a soap opera and his lyrics have wit and bite, while Rowe provides a powerfully melodic score. If at times it's a little heavy on the bombast, this is a meaty story with big characters. I could have lived without "Don't Blame The Prince", the attractive but whiny new Act One ballad for Cal as it slightly diminishes the impact of his quietly tragic "Child's Play" number at the end of the show, and further extends an already overlong first half. However, despite my reservations, this is a smart, cynical, ambitious, often bitterly funny piece of musical theatre, and one that gets the new Union off to an exciting start.

The Fix runs at the Union Theatre until 6 August.

Duration: 2 hours 45 mins inc interval