Edinburgh Fringe 2018
This brand new musical, about the threat of antibiotic resistance, is said to be “At times comedic and at times threatening an all-too-possible dystopian nightmare.”
Produced by Charades Musicals, The Mould that Changed the World has been developed in close collaboration with the antibiotics charity, the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, and The University of Edinburgh. It is performed by a cast of musical theatre professionals and a chorus of health care professionals from across the UK . They have come together with the shared vision of highlighting the antibiotic crisis and inciting social change in our use of antibiotics.
The opening of this musical is set at the United Nations in 2016. The audience imagines that we are receiving an address about antimicrobial resistance. The address begins with the narrator explaining that that, before looking at today’s challenges, she will summarise how we have got to where we are. Over the next 50 minutes we are taken on a whistle-stop tour, outlining the development of antibiotics and their subsequent use – beginning around 1918 in a military hospital and ending back at the UN address.
Throughout this almost entirely sung performance, a projection at the back of the stage cleverly mimics the circular view in a microscope. This vehicle provided inventive graphics to help to illustrate scenes, time changes and to complement some of the lyrics. Two dancers were very effectively and creatively used to convey the role of bacteria at several points in the story. The large cast (of over 15 people) were on stage for a large proportion of the show, with excellent pitching of vocals and creating a good balance of harmonies. The orchestra (incorporating piano, woodwind, strings and percussion) provided depth to the accompaniment, playing almost continuously throughout the piece.
This production had an unusual style of delivery – feeling more like a “lecture” than a typical musical. Lyrics were the main vehicle through which the story was conveyed and, because they were such an important strand, would have benefitted from clearer diction at times (particularly when the whole cast were singing in harmony). The balance with the orchestra seemed to be an issue in today’s performance and, in addition to the choral numbers, it was sometimes difficult to make out the lyrics sung by those soloists who were not using microphones. The lyrics were such a key element of this performance, that the structure in some areas may benefit from review. Not infrequently the sentences seemed rather awkwardly constructed, in order to enable the rhythm to flow. At times rhymes seemed very simplistic, and at others, overly contrived. The music, though well arranged, seemed to primarily function as a support to the lyrics, rather than helping to develop the story.
The feel of being in a lecture came about as, for a large part of the performance, it felt like the actors were singing “at” the audience. This approach may benefit from further consideration, as it created difficulties for the characters to develop an emotional depth or connection. This seems an opportunity missed, particularly when telling the incredible story of Fleming’s life and discovery! In addition, the story provided some moments which, with more appropriate staging and choreography, could have been very humorous. Using these opportunities may enable more variation and engagement with the performance.
It may help to give greater thought to how different scenes were created in the imagination of the audience – particularly when, at several times, the whole cast were on stage. Often it was not clear what roles the chorus members were playing in the scene. Costuming and make up was also a little confusing at times and may benefit from greater consistency. At one point the cast, for no clear reason, started throwing packets out at the audience (I am guessing these were antibacterial wipes). This unexpected sudden audience interaction seemed out of place and unnecessary. Often the cast were standing still, in lines, for long periods, yet the score enabled many opportunities for more movement, which could have added another layer to the performance.
I remember reading a children’s version of the story of Alexander Fleming’s life when at primary school and can still visualise the book – vividly remembering how exciting and inspirational it was. I was rather disappointed that the style of this musical did not evoke that sense of wonder, particularly as it was billed as a family show. The musical, however, also attempted to raise awareness about the threat of antibiotic resistance. While in part achieving this, the action that we, as an audience, could take to address the threat may benefit from having a clearer message. We were over halfway into the musical when we touched on these themes, and the message seemed a little confusing. In one scene a lot of patients with “-itis’s” were requesting antibiotics from a doctor. I could not catch all the lyrics, but I think this song was trying to convey the theme that they didn’t all need treatment. However, this was preceded by a song which, if I heard it correctly, was about the consequences of “coughs and sneezes” – which didn’t seem entirely aligned to the same message.
The theme of this musical has tremendous potential to be a witty, engaging, humorous, multidimensional performance about the discovery of penicillin, while also raising public awareness about the threat of antibiotic resistance. Creating more depth to the characters and the injection of humour, clearer scene-setting, clearer diction, and greater movement may help to achieve this potential. Greater clarity about the key messages for the audience, particularly about the action they can take, may also help to focus key scenes, and to direct the ending of the performance. For me, this performance doesn’t yet fully entertain as a stand-alone musical, though it goes some way to raise awareness about the threat of antimicrobial resistance. Overall, the performance is to be commended as a creative attempt to develop a new musical that integrates a public health message within an interesting, true story.