When was the last time you saw a truly original musical? No, I don’t mean the one written around a famous musician’s greatest hits, or the latest contemporary ‘song cycle’ with contrived over-arching themes — I mean a legitimately original concept, transformed into an original storyline, featuring original songs. You didn’t see any featured in either the Oliviers or the Tonys this year. But I’m here to let you know where you can finally feast your eyes on that elusive glimmer of shining originality: Riverside Studios, where you’ll find Payback the Musical.
Paul Rayfield’s Payback the Musical isn’t based on any living person, event or even historical time period: set three years in the future, the musical ambitiously treads new territory and does so with considerable success. It’s 2016 in London, and the fine line that already exists between the media and the judiciary system has been erased altogether; rather than bringing small claims to the court of law, dysfunctional relationships of all kinds are left to battle it out on Payback, where DNA tests, lie detectors, audiences’ opinions, and host and judge Matt Matthews (Matthew White) have the power to dish out legally-binding rulings. While perhaps formed with good intentions to save tax dollars and promote justice, Payback has become nothing but a minstrel show of working class mockery, exploiting ignorant and desperate citizens for the amusement of the folks at home in a Jerry Springer-esque manner.
This is where Guilherme (James Yeoburn) comes in — an underprivileged Brazilian desperate to find his estranged British father to receive the answers (and money) he deserves. With a thick accent and foreign naivety, he is the perfect candidate for Payback, but his story is more complicated than it seems.
Written by Rayfield, and developed and directed by Simon Greiff, the team has created an impressively coherent and well-developed story. The score, also by Rayfield, is rife with toe-tapping melodies and the occasional ballad, sung and performed by the cast with impressive vocal ability and plenty of verve. However, being heard is unfortunately an uphill battle for some, as the amplification of the music behind them tends to overpower their unamplified voices. Some numbers also feel over-choreographed, with ensemble actors struggling to fill the small space with dance moves, while still having to project over the music. Still, songs like ‘I’m In Love With My Polygraph’, ‘Holiday Romance’, ‘No Mercy’, and the closing number ‘Happy Endings’ are particularly enjoyable.
The high-energy cast is full of talent, with some playing multiple characters with amazing versatility. What struck me as an issue, though, is that the show lacks a clear protagonist. Presumably it should be Guilherme, but the underdeveloped role comes off mostly as whiny, and his loyal girlfriend Isabel (Katie Bernstein) gets to sing quite a bit (and does it well) but doesn’t get to add much to the story. Or possibly it should be Joe (Adam Flynn), seemingly the only moral and well-intentioned individual on the crew of Payback: but he doesn’t get enough time in the spotlight, either. Sarah Earnshaw gives a terrifically manipulative and sassy Sam, a behind-the-scenes producer of Payback, and I would’ve loved to see her have more to do. Matthew White is wonderfully villainous as the vindictive Matt Matthews, and his particularly strong singing voice was an added bonus. Howard Samuels is hilarious as the washed up rock star Billy Life, and his small role guarantees plenty of laughs from the audience.
Payback the Musical is not a perfect creation, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by this incredibly ambitious, original and refreshing endeavour that ultimately leaves you humming the tunes and feeling great. The many witty jabs at society’s 24/7 media-sphere and culture of ‘trial by media,’ as well as hilarious predictions of what may be to come, is what gives Payback its uniquely successful touch. A great use of multimedia puts Payback ahead of its time (literally and metaphorically), and Kate Unwin’s set creates just the right mood.
It is not every day that you get the chance to see a well-produced original musical, and for that and many other reasons, I’d heartily recommend this one.
Payback the Musical is playing at Riverside Studios until 30 June. For more information and tickets, see the Riverside Studios website.