Edinburgh Fringe 2009
Facebook: The Musical
Orbaum & Springall in Association with Hartshorn-Hook Productions
Venue: C, Chambers Street
Shows tapping into topical trends have long been an essential ingredient of the Edinburgh Fringe. With facebook having, over the past couple of years, graduated from a student craze to forge a career for itself as a vital element in the daily lives of a large proportion of the population, it would almost be strange if it didn’t feature in this year’s listings. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if Facebook: The Musical didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it, even if just as a throwaway line in a comic song. But this won’t be necessary as Orbaum & Springall, in Association with Hartshorn-Hook Productions, have brought us the real thing, all two hours of it.
At first, the premise of this show appears to be the creation of a fictitious profile and an exploration of the potentially wide-reaching effects of this. However, as the romance between two of the “real” characters comes to the fore, what apparently starts out as the main plot is gradually sidelined, and eventually seems to fizzle out altogether in favour of their stronger and more interesting story.
The description of the character of Rose as a geek and a loner doesn’t quite ring true as she comes across as too sweet and pretty (in a good way) to be either. However she does prove to be as great a singer as she is cracked up to be and her solos are a highlight. Although ably supported by Peter Gentry as Arthur it is really Tafline Steen’s Rose who carries the show throughout. She is definitely one to look out for in the future and I would hope she has bigger and better things to come. Jasmine Taylor (Leigh) has a pleasant voice too but suffers from the fact that her character at times seems somewhat superfluous.
Initially characters sit in their separate rooms communicating their feelings to one another publicly via status updates which are projected for the audience to read (albeit on a rather tacky looking cellophane screen), along with suitably crass profile pictures. This is quite effective but acknowledging that it would be dull to attempt to sustain this level of realism throughout, there is an attempt to develop it into something more abstract, where the updates effectively take on the role of thought bubbles in a strip cartoon, giving an interior monologue commentating on the live interaction. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work and seems to compromise on credibility.
With such a strong emphasis on status updates, there were times when I felt the show could just as well have been called Twitter: The Musical as, although there is the essential coverage of the universal angst when facebook upset the majority of its members by changing its layout, its potential for keeping in touch with people who would otherwise slip away, reconnecting with the long lost and making new contacts is not fully exploited in the development of the plot. In fact, much of what becomes the main plot could really jog along quite happily without any help from facebook at all. The wealth of applications provided by this popular social networking site are mainly explored in the form of humorous songs which give occasional light relief but these seem rather token and don’t do anything to move the story along.
This is a very uneven show. Just as you are thinking that it all seems rather static and lacking in visual interest with too much time spent standing side by side singing or speaking straight out front, a cleverly choreographed sequence (there is not really any dance to speak of but there is evidence of choreography) occurs and you think “wow, that was good!” Parts of the show are satisfyingly credible, other parts just seem too far fetched to contemplate. At one point, towards the end of the first half, I found the central love story just too uncomfortable to watch but it somehow redeems itself in the second half and becomes poignant almost (but not quite) to a tear-jerking extent.
Two hours is really too long for the Edinburgh Fringe. Audiences will give special dispensation to known names, established works and quirky ideas to claim their attention for longer but most of the time we want to be up and out and on our way to the next item on our agenda within an hour to an hour and a quarter. Attracting audiences to a longer show is only half the battle as buying a ticket does not constitute a commitment to stay the course; you have to earn your audience’s fidelity, especially if you are going to let them out for a 5 minute interval. The night I was there, some did not even wait for the interval to leave and others failed to return after it. I was glad I went back in, as the second half was definitely better than the first and served to consolidate the hitherto shaky 3 stars the show needed to earn to get a review on this site at all.
I would recommend this show on the basis of some good singing and acting and a brave attempt to tackle the difficult feat of bringing the two-dimensional world of facebook alive on stage but if you go to see it at all, be prepared to stay until the end to get the full benefit of its strengths over its weaknesses. To be honest, I think it really only attains the right to call itself “Facebook: ‘A’ Musical”, rather than “Facebook: ‘THE’ Musical”.