Brighton Fringe 2019
Succumb to sweet temptation in this spectacular reimagining of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem as an all-singing, all-dancing, Elvis-in-Hawaii musical. Travel with Danny Morningstar and his band of high school hellcats to tropical Club Eden where holiday camp heir Adam and his innocent sweetheart Eve are spending their first summer together. What unruly passions will the spark of Rock’n’Roll awaken in Paradise?
I didn’t think I was a big fan of musicals and I had no intention of reviewing this show. I bought a ticket because I was intrigued by the idea of a musical based on Milton’s Paradise Lost.
It turns out I was wrong. This was quite simply the most all round entertaining show I have had the pleasure to see.
It didn’t get off to an auspicious start. The cafe at the Brighthelm was empty, a few audience members wandered around, wondering if they’d got the right venue. Eventually, we found our way down to the basement and were lead into a function room, dressed like it was ready for a Hawaiian themed wedding where the guests had failed to arrive. But the bartender welcomed us to “Club Eden” and offered everyone a cup of punch while we waited for the seats to fill up.
The show started late, but it was worth the wait. Paradise Rocks bills itself as a reworking of Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost which tells the story of Satan’s tempting of Eve and Adam and their expulsion from the garden of Eden.
Set some time in the 1960’s, Danny Morningstar is a teenage rebel, into rock and roll music, a sort of James Dean via Elvis via Danny from Grease who accidentally shoots his violent, drunk and controlling father and flees with his gang to the tropical paradise of Hawaii where he gets a job playing rock and roll music to the teenagers at Club Eden, a sort of Butlins for White Anglo Saxon Protestants presided over by Gordon Haigh, “God on high” get it?
Adam is the bosses son, enjoying the luxuries his father’s wealth can buy, holidaying in the Club with Eve his ingenue fiance. Except Eve has longings. Eve already suspects there is more to life than Club Eden can provide. And rock and roll music is about to open a door that can’t be closed again.
Of course, this is a musical. There are a lot of songs and they are excellent. We get rock and roll numbers, we get slow ballads. The libretto is Cole Porter quality, the music catchy, plenty of musical hooks that make you want to sing along and complicated multi-voice numbers with melodies that overlap and dialogue that interleaves seamlessly.
So far so simple. What is outstanding about this play is that while it’s enjoyable as a parody of every Elvis musical you’ve ever seen, it never loses sight of its source material. This is a writer who knows his Milton, knows his 20th-century history and can put erudite intelligent dialogue in the mouths of his characters. I can’t say I caught all of the cultural references, there are plenty of them from Meatloaf to East of Eden, but the overarching metaphor never seems laboured or heavy-handed. He’s not showing off and he’s not patronising and he works the stereotypes that we expect in this kind of production without letting us fall into the trap of believing them.
To give an example. The character of Eve, played by Hazel Rogers comes across in the first half as a stereotyped ingenue, sexy and alluring but without much going on between her ears. If you left after the first half you might conclude that this was yet another underwritten female character (yawn). But after her encounter with Danny Morningstar he gives her a song that shows how she’s been reading about the world and the US’s wars in Asia and the wonders of science and the horror of the atom bomb and you realise that her awakening is that she’s discovered how safe and cosseted her world is and what she longs for is more than sexual fulfilment, it’s engagement with the wonders and horrors of the world and an escape from the limitations of her shallow life in Club Eden. Suddenly she is the driving force with the power and the love to show Adam what he’s missing and to support his rebellion against his father.
You can tell I enjoyed this right? Bear in mind that this is a production with probably no budget, in which everyone has given their time and effort because they believe in the material. The quality of the ensemble work is a testament to the work of the director Lex Lake and the choreographer Roger Duncan. The performers are singing, acting, taking turns to play musical instruments. Liam Murray Scott has an amazing singing voice and isn’t afraid to be unlikable as the slow to catch on, Adam. Hazel Rogers, a talented performance poet in her own right, is alluring and watchable as Eve even when she has nothing to say but comes into her own when she is given a voice. The writer Simon Indelicate plays Danny Morningstar and has just the right kind of Elvis attitude. The chorus and supporting players Raphael Kay, Angus Batteson, Lizzie Kroon, Romy Elliot, Julia Indelicate, David Wynne and Chris Hodges all have moments where they get to shine and show off their talents.
Of course, it’s not perfect. The singing is generally of a very high standard but not all the performers can keep this up all the time. Some of the dialogue cues are slow to pick up. Some of the performances are patchy, but all of them have moments of excellence.
Our reviews at fringereview.co.uk have to meet certain standards of objectivity and this has been a hard show for me to review, I laughed. I cried. I stood up with the rest of the audience for the standing ovation at the end. I really enjoyed this show. But my subjective enjoyment isn’t enough. For this show to get the highest rating we give I have to be able to justify that objectively.
The hard facts of life are that not all the performers would survive a transfer to the West End. But the fact that I am comparing a show, made with love, performed in the basement of the Brighthelm centre to a potential West End production should tell you everything you need to know. This is an outstanding play and an outstanding production. Everyone involved should be incredibly proud of their achievement.