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Theater Review (London): “Payback: The Musical” at the Riverside Studios

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An entirely new musical,with ambitions towards West End standards, with an entirely new collection of songs – that’s a big project to take on. It’s something that takes years to develop, to workshop, to stage, and the effort that’s been put into Payback, which opened on Friday night at the Riverside Studios is obvious.

The choreography is notably snappy, the singing excellent, if occasionally suffering from the inevitable unamplified challenge of instruments overwhelming voice, there’s a fair bit of humour and interest in the script, and a storyline that goes well beyond the musical minimum of boy meets girl, loses girl, gets her back again.

It makes a thoroughly entertaining evening overall. But … There is one big problem, which means that I think this is unlikely to reach its obvious ambition to reach beyond the fringe to leap on to the West End. It’s the basic premise: Payback is built around a reality television show of the Jeremy Kyle type.

This is presented as though it were the thing of the moment – that moment being 2016 (admittedly updated with the story line that the government has outsourced paternity hearing from the courts to the show), when it just isn’t. These were the reality TV shows of note a decade ago – around about the time of Jerry Springer – The Opera, to which Payback is obviously more than a little indebted.

It just feels a bit old and tired, the twin sisters apparently impregnated by a feckless Essex holiday rep on the same evening are a tabloid stereotype worn way beyond thin – and since we are talking about paternity cases, whatever happened to DNA tests?

Yes this is a musical, and musicals with mighty silly plots have gone a long way over the years, but I just kept being distracted by the feeling that I had seen this all before, some time ago, and by some gaping holes in the plot.

It is a pity, because there is much to praise about this production, and the efforts of the mostly young cast. Probably the standout presence on the stage was Sarah Earnshaw as the the television show’s producer Sam, at war with the inevitably vile and rapacious presenter Matt Matthews (Matthew White).

Payback-jpg

Katie Bernstein and James Yeoburn as the central romantic pair, Isabel and Guilherme (pictured left), who are struggling to keep an internet cafe running in a Rio favela, both give fine singing performance, although there’s little meat in their parts for acting.

That falls most perhaps to Adam Flynn as Joe, the wanna-be presenter of Payback, who does succeed in attracting the liking of the audience – although the twist at the end in which he succeeds is both rapid and ill-explored.

Payback-jpgSo there are faults here, of a rather major kind, but still it is a pleasantly entertaining evening, an ideal evening for a party of friends or a couple seeking an unchallenging and entertaining couple of hours. Recommended if you’re happy to have your entertainment light and energetic.

The production continues at the Riverside Studios until June 30, with online booking.

Photos: Phil O’Connor, Sportive Photo Limited

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.