Merlot and Royal Bank, not quite a Barclays or a Lloyds but getting there, is rocked upon the death of its founder. Its board, horrified that the founder's womanizing son is now the controlling shareholder, agree that the best way to tame Casanova is to trap his knees under the kitchen table of a good, steady woman.
This was an ambitious project by Ketone Productions, essentially in the person of the ubiquitous Imogen Mechie. Not content with having written the 15 or so songs for voice and piano at school at age 15, she orchestrated the music in her vacation, wrote both the storyline and the libretto, directed the production with assistance from her assistant Tom Gardiner and producer Clare Smedley, played piano in the band, wrote the programme notes and even popped up in front of the curtain with a brief introduction.
The show could easily have been lost in the yawning space of the Tingewick Theatre in the heart of the John Radcliffe Hospital, but Ms Mechie made competent use of the huge stage, never permitting the cast to be lost in it, and sensibly establishing a furnished dais to one side to represent the bank's boardroom. This and the newspaper frontage of the bank with its twin clocks were an imaginatively-conceived effort by the four designers, and the attractive programme was well above average for a student production.
The 12 strong band got us off to a strong start with the catchy overture, followed by 'Merlot and Royal', the show's signature tune from the chorus - jaunty and cohesive throughout – and then the bounce of 'We'll Find You a Wife . Later songs included the romantic ballad 'Why Is Reality Rarely Romantic?' and its cleverly-arranged successor 'I Stand Here in the Moonlight' which contained real emotion as sung by Amelia Gabriel whom I know to be an accomplished singer. One or two were less successful, including 'The Sun Still Shone' – sinewy lyrics, but Edward Huang was somewhat ill at ease with the baritone range. From the band, the accomplished piano of Imogen Mechie aside, I noted Danny Simpson's saxophone and I especially enjoyed the flute of Shanil Hansjee of whose playing one would like to hear more in a public setting.
I thought these aspects of the show well-conceived and performed. Alas, 15 songs a musical do not make, and the show was holed if not below the waterline then at the plimsoll line by a storyline as thin as the newspapers that coated the entirety of M & R's facade. The ups and down of the Bank's present and future never extended beyond the purely mechanical, and in Act II we slid out of the blue into crude melodrama. The romantic pas de trois failed to generate either heat or light since our soi-disant lovers were given little to do other than stand about looking soulful. The show was, I think, set in the 1950s but there was anachronism in the dialogue ("You've been there for me since.... pretty amazing..... country getaway") and little attempt had been made to anchor it in any given era.
All this said, several of the cast of 14, eight of them playing multiple characters, impressed in their roles. Sammy Breen was a solid presence as Merlot son and heir, though a most unlikely playboy and ultimately stumped by the passivity of his character, while Benedict Turvill and the excellent Alex Buchanan almost persuaded me of their status as bigwig bankers in tailored suits, and sang strongly. Mr Buchanan was far more at home here than he had been in February's Anna Karenina. Naomi Cockrill did her best with an anodyne role as supplanted love interest. I particularly liked Eric Tong's hapless Mr Thompson, wide-eyed with shock and indignation – he's ready for bigger roles - and the acting and singing of both Janice Neo and Becky Lenihan had energy.
Imogen Mechie and her associates deserve warm credit for the ambition of their endeavours, especially since many of them are medical students and heavily committed elsewhere. With greater attention to storyline and dialogue this could have been something special. As it is, they can be optimistic for their next project.