Leave your Complete Works at the door – Desperate Measures, a bold new take on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure by Robin Kingsland and Chris Barton, swaps Vienna circa 1600 for Soho in the Swinging Sixties. Perhaps surprisingly, it proves a canny update. The 1960s were a time of change, of free love and the backlash against the sexual revolution, of the death penalty – all themes present in some form in the original problem play.
The Duke who leaves his sinning city under another man’s control becomes, in this retelling, Douglas Dukes (Sam Elwin), an endearing if ineffectual Prime Minister. Taking over the reigns and cracking down on fornication with the help of a Morality Enforcement squad (known as the “Porn Troopers”) is Angelo equivalent Simon Di Angelo (Charlie Merriman), a Machiavellian religious fanatic and backbencher from Lowestoft who sports a long leather coat, a diamante crucifix, and a permanent evil glint in his eyes. Claudio becomes Milo Feather (Jojo Macari), a handsome young pop star facing the noose for having sex with Julia (Alice Jay), the girl he loves. The character changed the least is Isabella – here Isobel (Ellie Nunn) – a young and virtuous novice nun in a cruel (and horny) man’s world.
Though updated, the story remains virtually unchanged. Desperate to save her brother’s life, Isobel begs Di Angelo to reconsider Milo’s death sentence. Forced to sacrifice her brother or her virginity, she hatches a plan with the help of Fleet Street hack-cum-investigative-journalist Charlie Lucre (James Wilson), tracking down Di Angelo’s hippy ex-lover to exact a kind of righteous revenge. There are many twists and turns, of course, and it’s incredibly funny and well-written. It’s also a musical with a 3-piece band, and for the most part it bounces along brilliantly under the control of enthusiastic Musical Director Jordan Li-Smith. There are catchy tunes as well as emotional duets, though some of the pieces begin to feel a little tedious or unnecessary after the interval.
While Nunn as Isobel is firmly the leading lady, boasting the strongest presence and one of the best singing voices too, the real show stealer is Angharad George-Carey, appearing as sassy European call-girl Chantille and then, slipping a twinset and pearls over her PVC mini skirt, Lady Escalus, the brains behind the corrupted government operation. Nunn and George-Carey lead a very strong cast, other highlights including Harry Al-Adwani as Sir Peregrine Peach, a tweed-clad posho with a penchant for prostitutes, champagne and fine cigars, and Ed Boylan as “club owner” and dodgy pimp Terry Pompey, who doesn’t get to do much but is hilarious nonetheless.
Jermyn Street Theatre is a wonderful space but it does come with obstacles for any cast to negotiate. It’s impressive that the cast and creatives have mounted such a professional-feeling (if small scale) musical in such a tiny space. The audio system leaves the cast battling with the musicians to be heard in places but it’s mostly well done. However, as a result of sound imbalance, Desperate Measures (the musical) often works best in its spoken scenes, where the wittiness of Robin Kingsland’s book gets to sparkle and the cast really runs with it. There’s a great deal of potential shining through and long stretches of Desperate Measures are a real joy. On the other hand, there are also a lot of dull moments, and quite a bit could be cut from its current 2.5 hour running time. But panto alternatives don’t come much pluckier than this. Gutsy musical fun with a fantastic young cast, by the end of its run Desperate Measures could be something really special.