Theatre Charles Dickens had the audacity to die in the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and at a crucial moment. People have been writing their own version of whether Drood was murdered and who did it, but it came as something of a surprise to find out that a musical was amongst the spin-offs. The Liverpool Fame School, LIPA have just had a production in short run and it was truly excellent, sweet and funny.

The set up is almost as complicated as Charlie Kauffman’s Adaptation, so bare with me. The actors portray actors in an old fashioned music hall putting on a production of the musical. So we have a musical within a musical. It’s like Kiss Me Kate, no one ever slips out of character. In the LIPA production the show begins as soon as you enter the theatre because the actors interact with the audience totally in the characters of the music hall actors and they’re already canvassing for you appreciation. Not in the mood? Much of the rest of cast will appear on your shoulder and make you in the mood. It feels creepy to begin with (I would suggest a beer to loosen yourself up before hand), but it’s very fun. It’s in these parts before the show and in the intermission that mini-dramas occur as the actors fall in and out of love and propose to each other.

The show proceeds. As far as I could tell we had a pitch perfect recreation of what would have occurred at the turn of the century. But with an all important irony. Because the actors are having to put in a performance within a performance, the lines between the character and the actor character playing them are a bit blurry; but it seems just right that in the middle of a scene the action should stop so that the actor can be introduced (told you this was complicated) – the modern equivalent is Happy Days when the Fonz arrives. The bizarre mannerisms and odd gestures are played to some extent for laughs; sometimes its not quite clear if technical hitches such as the smoke machine on overload are supposed to be part of the joke, but we laugh anyway.

It’s midway through the second half that things get really loose and interesting as the audience has to vote on who the murderer will be. The actors ballot and harrange the audience again so to win so that they can have the big solo under the spotlight at the end. The bit actors come down from the stage and much as they did at the start get us voting in character, dragging an audience member up to do the counting. As far as well can tell it isn’t rigged (the number of votes each actor/character got is up outside as we leave) and adds some much needed tension as we will the one we want to win.

I haven’t seen this show before so I couldn’t compare. The friend I was with had been part of a production in the past and was suitably impressed I think. Presumably in keeping with the place the show was being produced there were no week links. Every actor no matter how small the part in the actual show was putting in their all – even when they weren’t on stage they stayed in character haranging from the sidelines. It’s going to be really fun when these guys go off into the real world because some of them are going to be very, very famous. It is by its nature an amateur production but it felt utterly, utterly professional.

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