There’s a lot to recommend Devilish which has just opened at The Landor in Clapham. The set is simple, but clever and charming (David Shields, who is also responsible for costume), the largely young ensemble are drilled to near perfection in some zappy rock’n’roll choreography (Adam Scown, who seems able to get the best from even the unlikeliest members of the cast), the leading man (Alex Green) is cute as a button, smiles almost constantly, and spends most of the show shirtless revealing his…ahem…physique. It’s all a lot of fun.
This is billed as ‘a musical comedy’ and to be fair there are a lot of laughs, even if some of them are thirty years past their sell-by date (I really didn’t think I’d hear another ‘pussy’ joke after Are You Being Served so comprehensibly mined that particular seam), however the one thing it’s sadly lacking is a story.
That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of plot, because there is. Bookwriter Chris Burgess brings his soap-writing experience to the show and makes sure plenty happens, just as he did with his musical Sleeping Arrangements at this same venue in 2013. But as was the same problem with that show, he fails to insinuate any identifiable emotional journey into the superstructure until way beyond the point when anyone could actually give two hoots. Even when emotion does rear its head it’s so superficial as to produce laughter from the audience at its presence.
With this structure missing the evening just doesn’t function as it should. It’s by no means clear whose story is being told until way too late in act one, and the huge dollop of exposition around the character of Ruth at the opening leads us, erroneously, to believe that she’s the character we’re supposed to be following and even though Victoria Hope does an excellent job in trying to give the role some life, the lack of distinction in the writing means she’s got an uphill task on her hands.
When we do manage to identify who it is we’re supposed to be concentrating on, the lead character is almost completely passive and has no definable obstacle to overcome, meaning he’s nice to look at, but actually we don’t care what he wants or whether or not he gets it. He’s a fish out of water, but as we don’t see him in his original pond we have just to make do with him telling us that he’s an angel, and therefore good.
The threading-in of superfluous plots and characters only serves to further-muddy an already indistinct evening. There were times when I wondered why a particular song had made it into the show at all (such as ‘Join The Gang’ which also incidentally has awful lyrics with words being rhymed with themselves).
Still, a musical would be nothing without the music, and BB Cooper does do a nice line in pastiche, much of it toe-tappingly up-tempo rock and roll, which keeps the evening from sinking completely, and our excellent cast moving.
As well as Mr Green and Ms Hope there are nice turns from Louie Westwood as a series of different characters the best of which are his desperate magician, and his TV presenter with a speech impediment. Helen Ward-Jackson is one to watch in the background with an almost Victoria Wood-like range of scene-stealing characterisation. Gareth James is possibly a little too nice to really be taken seriously as a media tycoon, but has a great presence.
All in all Devilish is likeable, and probably contains the germ of a great idea, but without the most basic of proper structure in place it just didn’t work for me, in spite of the hard work which the cast have so evidently put in.