David Baddiel, the first comedian to perform in arenas in the UK, makes his first foray into musical theatre by adapting his 2010 film, The Infidel. The plot deals with the theme of ‘identity’ – well-trodden material in the musical field and perhaps the reason the adaptation was conceived. Kev Orkian stars as Mahmud: a normal bloke, London cabbie and a Muslim. When his mother passes away, he finds his adoption papers whilst clearing out her house. On investigation, he realises that not only was he adopted, but also Jewish. This sends him on a comical adventure of stereotypes, prejudices and knowing oneself, but unfortunately, that is pretty much all you are going to get.
The musical genre allows the material to be provocative, with anything borderline offensive signed off with a nod and a wink. Baddiel’s script is thick with gags, but too many jokes fall flat and no punchline ever soars. The strength and weakness of the production is its blithe approach to potentially difficult territory. As an audience member I was kept amused, although nothing ever made me sit up and take notice. I feel that the grittier approach can hold the biggest laughs, something that Baddiel has not shied away from in past material, and which is lacking in this adaptation.
Erran Baron Cohen’s musical accompaniment is disappointing, creating generic musical tunes that are forgotten almost immediately. I understand that their angle is to emulate other musicals, albeit with an unconventional plot. However, in doing so, the songs become a victim of their own intention, lost amongst a plethora of predictable West End show tunes. Moreover, Baddiel’s lyrics feel clumsy, speeding up vocal tempo to cram in lyrics. As a punchline this only works once or twice, getting tiresome quickly.
The cast strike a welcome balance between keeping it upbeat, but never too hammy. Orkian is a strong lead as the sympathetic every-man, with some moments of great physical comedy and timing. The scenes with Mahmud and Andrew Paul as Lenny, Mahmud’s former Jewish enemy-turned-teacher, are the most fruitful as they learn together that they are not all that different.
Nick Barnes’s set design is effective in establishing location, predominately using doors to achieve this. There is nothing particularly creative in this department, but it serves its purpose and matches the overall flavour. The simple sets allow for quick scene changes and keep the action moving, something much needed to combat the overly long running time of two-and-a-half hours.
I am sure that directors Baddiel and Kerry Michael achieve their vision: they have conjured a familiar musical experience with the plot of Baddiel’s hit film, The Infidel. It is a light-hearted romp with a modest message that we are not defined by our race, religion or belief, but do not expect to remember much about it the next day.
The Infidel: The Musical is playing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until 15 November. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Stratford East website.
Photo by Robert Day.