Edinburgh Fringe 2018
89 nights tells the story of school-leaver Alice, arriving in New York on a 90 day ESTA visa to work illegally as a nanny. On meeting new people, she wrestles with the question ‘If you know when it’s going to end, what’s the point in starting?” This new musical has its world premiere at the Fringe. Troubadour Stageworks are united in the bold aim of wanting to transform the way in which stories are told and performed on stage. Believing that modern theatre relies too much on technology, the company say that they work out how best to tell a story within specific confines and to certain audiences, creating a stage in any space.
On entering the theatre, the audience is immediately faced with a simple backdrop of the New York skyline and “welcomed” by two actors, assuming the roles of highly assertive New Yorkers, marshalling people to their seats. This sets the scene for the next 50 minutes where the audience is transported, with Alice, to New York – beginning with her arrival, then following her experiences over the next 89 nights.
From the moment the action began it was clear that we were in for a wonderful performance. The impressive live music, high energy cast, creative choreography and tremendous vocals made the whole audience sit up with excitement and anticipation right from the start. We were not to be disappointed!
This new musical has, at its heart, a wonderful score that blends perfectly with the witty, flowing lyrics. The score and lyrics complement each other beautifully, with lovely touches of recognisable musical nods to genres that are referenced in the lyrics and dialogue. The first-rate lyrics never seem contrived – developing some inventive humorous rhymes at times, and at others generating powerful emotions. Together music and lyrics create memorable moments and include a varied, yet well balanced, range of solos, duets, and chorus numbers, with pleasant harmonies. Opportunities were provided within the score for the creation of some fast-paced choreography, which the cast tackled with gusto!
Although the plot line sounds fairly straightforward and light-hearted, it works surprisingly well. Not only does is create a platform for some very humorous scenes, it also operates at a deeper level, enabling exploration of the emotional challenges that are presented for relationships developing in time-limited situations. The outcome is a winning combination of a highly entertaining and humorous show that also leaves the audience reflecting upon the scenario.
The piece was clearly very well-rehearsed. Slick scene changes were delivered seamlessly and all the cast worked cohesively to generate tremendous pace and energy. In accordance with the company’s aims, the performance has clearly been set with the venue layout in mind – ensuring that action is directed to all sides of the thrust stage. In addition, the company innovatively used the physical obstacles (large supportive posts) at the stage edges as positive features, interweaving these into the performance as part of the set, while also making good use of the aisles, the audience seating and, at times, the audience themselves!
The performance was very well directed, using the minimal scenery and props, along with the versatility of the actors, to tremendous effect – creating the appearance of vivid settings in the imagination of the audience. Particular scenes on the subway, and when getting through barriers, were especially creative and effective.
Acting was of a very high standard, with many of the cast taking on multiple roles and executing some exceptional characterisation. The facial expressions of the dysfunctional New York family created some notable comedic moments.
Dialogue flowed seamlessly into the songs and, similarly, songs back to dialogue. At times the musicians played continuously, between songs, as background music to dialogue. On these occasions the timing worked perfectly, suggesting really close attention to the pace had taken place in the rehearsal room. Although we could not see the musicians, and were not clear how many there were, the depth and quality of this live backing music was exceptional, impacting significantly on the overall audience experience of this performance. Occasionally the balance in volume resulted in the vocals, and dialogue being subsumed by the accompaniment and difficult to hear, though this was infrequent. A particular challenge is likely to have been the distant location of the musicians, in relation to the stage. The pitching of vocals was generally excellent, faltering just a little at times in exposed sections where accompaniment was minimal. For some of the cast diction in the sung sections seemed much clearer than in their spoken dialogue, though all was of a good standard. Accents, too, were generally carried off to good effect. The simple costuming was very effective, though may benefit from greater consistency. Given the pared down nature of the set it didn’t seem necessary for the shirt changes at a couple of points. If this was to imply a change in time between scenes, then this seemed unnecessary and, as it was inconsistent, created a little confusion.
One scene that appeared particularly challenging involved a song that required very fast paced diction, alternating between English and American accents, with the actors having to frequently change roles and settings within the song. This section may benefit from further review as, compared to the extremely high standard of the rest of the show, it didn’t seem quite as understandable or polished. A greater focus on diction, plus more focussed activity, may help to smooth this out. In this scene it may also help to delay bringing the music stand on stage as it disrupted the setting a little. However, these are relatively minor points as, even with these challenges, the scene was still very enjoyable.
I always feel it is a gamble to enter an unfamiliar venue to see a company you do not know perform a new musical. The spectrum of what may be delivered is a wide one. Fortunately, this turned out to be an unexpected Fringe highlight! It is always a pleasure to see a company striving to create a performance aligned to their aims. When this ambition is combined with a talented, enthusiastic cast, skilled musicians, great direction, a wonderful score and lyrics, and a story that makes you laugh and reflect – then you have all the ingredients for an excellent show. One that is highly recommended!