Poppies, which has just opened at The Space on Westferry Road, has the best constructed and written book for a new musical I’ve seen anywhere in London this year.
Written by Laura Kaye Thomson and Lizzie Bourne, it is a fictional story inspired by the life of Lena Ashwell (1872-1957) who, during the First World War, organised concert parties near the front in war-torn Europe to keep up the morale of British and Commonwealth troops.
As such it’s a story which deserves to be told, and the storytelling in Poppies is well executed, the characters well drawn, and the emotional journeys engaging.
It will make a really good subject for a musical. And that, I’m afraid, is the problem. It’s currently very far from being a musical. No, let me re-phrase that. It’s very far from being a completed musical. There is music. I think I counted five songs in Act One, and possibly four in Act Two from the talented actor/musician cast. Indeed the Act Two song ‘I feel you’ is a fine piece of musical theatre writing but sadly stands out as being one of the few points where there should have been a song and actually was.
The rest of the music by Laura Kaye Thomson, is fair enough in a folky guitar kind of way, and undoubtedly catchy, but as the songs themselves are mainly diegetic (that is, the character knows they are singing them, for example they are performing them on stage as part of a concert party) they do nothing to further the plot and are really only providing light relief, and a pause in the action. The one exception being the Act One closer ‘I saddle my horse’ which is an anthemic call-to-the-front, seemingly for The Kings Own Guitar Strumming Regiment.
As I mentioned, the show is actor/musician but actually this works well given the traverse staging and the fact that the well-constructed book keeps things moving along nicely. There’s a good spread of instruments too with several guitars, a French horn, flute, and cello all being mobile and a grand piano which, for obvious reasons, isn’t. The sound is stirring and Ms Thomson’s arrangements work well. Indeed they’re often better than her lyrics which do occasionally verge into the cringe-worthy either because they are supposed to rhyme, then don’t (truce/recruits, for example) or because they bear unfortunate echoes of other songs. I’m sure it’s an unconscious homage, but she may wish to check out the lyrics to ‘True Love’ from the musical High Society, and Anthony’s Act One song ‘Johanna’ from Sweeney Todd.
One area where Thomson and Bourne have excelled themselves, however, is in the gender balance. This is a show which is based around a cast of active female characters, and even though there are also male characters in the cast it would, I’m sure, score pretty high on the Bechtel test.
Although it may seem unfair to single out a person for praise given the generally high standard of the cast, Arabella Gibbins as the protagonist, May Kirklees is breathtaking as an English Rose trying to make sense of the slaughter of war, and I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. One to watch.
All in all this simply isn’t a musical quite yet, but holds such tantalising promise that I really hope Laura Kaye Thomson and the team keep working on it. Think of this production as a try out. A workshop. A stepping stone on the path to what I could well see being a great show. All you have to do is write it, and I hope you do.