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This Was Your Life
Published on Sunday, 15 July 2012

4 starsUnderground Venues, Theatre
Run ended
Reviewed by Richard Stamp

There’s an entertaining energy to the start of this cabaret musical, which drops us straight into a busy TV studio moments before a live transmission begins.  The guest, Michael, stands nervously by, not sure what to expect when the story of his life is told.  The self-obsessed host knows Michael’s darkest secrets – and gleefully plans to reveal them, with the connivance of his one-time friends.  But it soon becomes clear that this is more than just an episode of Jeremy Kyle: it’s a ludicrous juxtaposition of death and showbiz, which will end with Michael’s soul being sent to Heaven… or to Hell.

Yes, yes, I know; they’ve borrowed a few ideas from Jerry Springer The Opera.  But the plot’s essentially an excuse for a series of extremely funny set-pieces, which start off predictable but invariably take a surprising and creative turn.  Michael’s granddad delivers a stinging rebuke in an improbable musical style.  A pop group tells a tale of betrayal through nothing but facial expressions, all while singing and doing a truly ridiculous dance.  And I realised that my mouth was hanging open in horror during one particular cabaret routine… but it was good horror, if you know what I mean.

The cast are kept busy; just three of them play all the roles, though rapid costume changes and cleverly-constructed stage directions make it feel like there’s far more.  Among the songs, a couple of the spotlit tragic numbers were a little ambitious for the actors’ vocal talent, and I often felt a concept was stretched out for that one verse too long.  On the whole, though, the musical interludes worked well, with the little asides interjected into the lyrics among the funniest lines in the whole show.

As befits a TV audience, we’re often called on to deliver canned applause, a simple device which felt unforced and kept the energy high.  But amidst the laughter, there are a few well-planted reminders of what’s really going on here: at the end of the show, we’ll be judging Michael’s life, and deciding where he’ll spend his eternity.  The chilling poignancy often pokes through just when you least expect it – at times interrupting me in the middle of a giggle, and shaming me into silence.  It’s to the credit of the cast that they can deliver such rapid mood swings, lending a harder edge to what could otherwise have been an insubstantial throw-away theme.

When it came to the final decision, though, I felt they let us off lightly.  The last few scenes point strongly to a particular verdict, and the audience I was in duly voted that way – removing the sense of true responsibility, even though we knew we were probably ending our host’s television career.  I’d have liked to see more of the unintended consequences; as it was, I was primed for a final twist which never came.

In the end, then, this isn’t life-changing theatre… but it’s a good solid Fringe show, delivered with enthusiasm and packed with wit.  The little details are delightful – the glad-handing producer, the puppy-dog work-experience guy who takes 30 steps to cross a tiny stage – and I cared about the characters, for all that they’re broadly drawn.  It’s sometimes poignant, often outrageous, and funny all the way through.  Michael may have left this world, but the spirit of the Fringe lives on.

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These are archived reviews of shows from Buxton 2012.  We keep our archives online as a courtesy to performers, and for readers who'd like to research previous years' reviews.