To mark the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli, Runner Bean Productions presents The Dreamers, a show that sells itself as a musical but is actually more like a history lecture set to music. With original words and refreshingly modern music by James Beeny and Gina Georgio, and a live six-piece band, the production approaches well-trod ground a new way. However, The Dreamers still finds itself limited by World War One clichés.
The show begins on New Year’s Eve, 1913. A host of young dreamers gather under the fireworks looking forward to their futures but soon find themselves rudely awoken by the bloody reality of the war. The men and women change costume before our eyes and in doing so assume new identities, becoming soldiers, nurses, policewomen and Suffragettes. It’s a sobering reminder that the heroes of World War One were just ordinary people, a message that the production and its vast, committed young cast hammer home well, if not subtly.
The Dreamers tells the story of 3rd Company and pays tribute to the heroism of their leader, Captain Salomons. After the men are recruited, they say goodbye to their families and – after what feels like an age – head off to the war, the trenches and Gallipoli. There are largely unexplained subplots, like the recurring appearance of a boy too young to join up and brief rumblings of mutiny from disgruntled young Private Jack Hastings, but otherwise the men trundle through their monotonous journey with solemn conviction and the occasional joyous moment of forgetting.
Although it makes for a sombre evening there’s no denying that the production has an important final message. But the powerful ending is easily the best thing about The Dreamers, an otherwise slow-progressing and surprisingly static piece. While the music is brilliant the lyrics are often awkward and long sections of video projection and choreographed movement feel disjointed. Perhaps it is just centenary fatigue setting in but the play’s central themes – ‘heroism’, ‘patriotism’, and ‘sacrifice’ – feel like nothing more than buzzwords to pull on the heartstrings. The clips of trench warfare and marching Tommies are now so familiar that they have lost much of their desired emotional impact and, sadly, the production lacks the drama needed to claw it back.