How should a highly acclaimed writer solve the issue of writer’s block? That’s not the question I asked myself this morning, staring at a blank computer screen, but the problem central to musical comedy Betwixt!
The answer, as all writers will know, is to meet a new room-mate – for whom you haven’t advertised – and step through a door that magically appears in your apartment, entering a fantasy world in need of saving by a great adventurer. Take it from me, we’ve all had days like that.
This particular enchanted country is inhabited by a princess whose magical sister is trying to bring about her downfall, a troupe of ever-so-slightly inept travelling performers, some salaciously distracting nymphs, and a disembodied German head which has been put under a curse. The programme’s introduction to the show suggests the audience “don’t ask too many questions – just go with it”. Wise advice, I would say.
There are many questions worth asking, ‘Why take the smallest stage in the West End and shrink it further with an onstage band?’ being just one of them. In fairness, it would probably take a sorcerer of immense power to create space for a live band in this most bijou of venues, but it is hard to conjure a fantasy landscape when there is barely enough room to swing a dwarf.
While headline casting comes in the shape of Little Shop Of Horrors’s Ellen Greene – playing a trio of magical siblings – and Peter Duncan, who morphs from daytime TV star to over-the-top actor – okay, maybe that’s not so much of a leap – it is a threesome of rising musical stars that push the plot forward.
Benedict Salter, making his West End debut as stalling author Bailey, plays the straight man, in more ways than one, to Ashleigh Gray’s torso-less Teutonic tunesmith Miranda and Steven Webb’s Cooper, who could not be more of a Queen if he was Brian May wearing a tiara. Webb, in fact, steals the show with his pitch perfect comedy campery.
With book, music, lyrics and direction all supplied by Ian McFarlane, Betwixt! definitely feels like one man’s project, which could have been polished by another pair of eyes. It finds comedy in self-reference and knowingness, but occasionally too much so. It sometimes goes for the obvious gag when a little more sophistication would give it the panache of a mighty wizard rather than the patter of a street magician.
But maybe I am falling into the trap of asking too many questions; take them away and Betwixt! is two hours of knockabout silliness, owing a debt to Monty Python and The League Of Gentlemen, with a message, a heart and a trio of central performers who leave you smiling. Just go with it.