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Tokyo Rose at Southwark Playhouse – review

The new musical is lengthened and brought to Southwark Playhouse after a one-act version premiered in 2019

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
The Tokyo Rose company
© Steve Cregson

There is undoubtedly a fascinating musical in the legend of Tokyo Rose – the nickname given to the collective of female Japanese broadcasters who soothed and/or demoralised US troops in the Pacific in the latter stages of WW2 – and specifically the story of Iva Toguri, the USA-born radio announcer wrongly accused of treason by the American authorities. Currently, though, this isn't it, or at least not in this iteration, which is particularly disappointing if, like me, you've had Maryhee Yoon, Cara Baldwin and William Patrick Harrison's thrilling songs on constant Spotify repeat of late.

If Les Mis nudged the door ajar for musicals to set historical stories to contemporary music, Hamilton burst it wide open, and, on the basis of the score alone, Tokyo Rose, with its eclectic, dramatic melange of bangers, power ballads, lyricism and just BIG sounds, should have been right up there with the best. It also, crucially, sees Asian creatives telling an Asian story. Whatever its flaws are, it's still potentially a significant piece of work and one worthy of further development.

So what went wrong here then? The show gets off to a terrific start with the rollicking Six-esque "Hello America" offering a potted history of Japan, including unwelcome overseas intervention (think a brief, female-centric Pacific Overtures) plus an introduction to Iva Toguri (winningly played by Maya Britto) and the sextet of talented, multi-tasking female singer-actors. It's ambitious but also great, edgy fun.

It also, unfortunately, turns out to be the high point of an otherwise pretty humourless evening so wildly uneven in tone and energy that it becomes very difficult to engage with or even follow. The lack of live music doesn't help: having the performers sing to a muffled backing track benefits nobody, not the cast, initially pitchy on their harmonies on press night, who can't extend phrases or take dramatic pauses in case they fall out of time with the prerecorded orchestration, nor the score itself which ends up sounding tinny and underwhelming…and certainly not the Musicians Union.

Hannah Benson's staging, a courtroom drama apparently being played out in the lobby of a budget hotel in the midst of a power cut, is frustratingly inconsistent. The cast shuffles on and off aimlessly between inert dialogue scenes dragging bits of scenery with them, then unexpectedly launch into full-on dance breaks, and at one entrancing moment, group together to create a propeller plane out of just a couple of giant fans, their own bodies and a whirring watch chain. The music video-style choreography is only delivered with the requisite precision and dynamism by a couple of the cast, which would suggest it needs a bit of a rethink.

The lighting is, frankly, appalling. Performers are repeatedly placed next to each other yet only one of them will be lit, taller actresses stand on the raised level of the hexagon-obsessed set and their faces are in darkness…. one could look charitably on this sort of thing in a school play but not at one of the capital's foremost off-West End venues. The sound isn't much better, with roughly half of the words getting lost in a sort of lacklustre aural soup: that's a major problem in as complex a story as this one and with music this good.

Dramaturgically, despite having a quartet of creatives attached, Tokyo Rose is a mess, unable to decide whether it's a sober-minded docu-drama (and this tale is interesting enough to cope with such an unadorned treatment) or a too-cool-for-school anachronistic meta-musical along the lines of Operation Mincemeat or Here Lies Love. The cast doesn't seem to know either, all of them presenting impressive but specific skill sets (Kanako Nakano is a spiky comedienne and a fabulous dancer, Yuki Sutton brings exceptional gravitas and a lovely warmth to Iva's mother and then her legal representative) that could be exceptional if harnessed properly, but currently come across as sloppily undisciplined without a strong directorial hand.

While this ambiguous tale is emphatically worth telling, this overlong musical requires some major cutting, rethinking, and probably a whole new physical production to stop it from collapsing under the weight of its own ambition.

It could be brilliant, and it's partially on the way there, but it needs a lot of work. Just occasionally it soars with wit and originality, but there's nowhere near enough of that yet. Despite all that, Tokyo Rose's next broadcast remains worth listening out for.

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