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Sin, the Musical

by on 29 July 2022

Little of What You Fancy

Sin, the Musical

by John-Michael Mahoney

Dmii Productions at The Arcola Theatre until 25th August.   World Première

Review by Vince Francis

To east London, Dalston, to be precise, on a warm Thursday evening to look in on a new piece of writing at a venue I haven’t visited before; the Arcola Theatre, in Ashwin Street.  The building itself is a converted fabrics factory and has retained the atmosphere of naked brick and ironwork industry, which makes it a suitable venue for this production.

A very pleasant welcome and time for a swift ale before seating in the auditorium, laid out with the audience on three sides of the playing space and having the band on a scaffold platform above and tucked in one corner.

Sin, set in 1920s New York, is a musical written, scored, arranged and directed by John-Michael Mahoney, who also plays the role of Michael in the show.   The plot centres around a power struggle within a group of friends led by the key character, Jack, who has inherited a considerable amount of money, which he has invested in a speakeasy.  Early on, Jack’s leadership is tested, and factions start to form.  The violent nature of the times and the competition for supplies and custom inevitably results in clashes both within the group and externally and results in the tragic loss of one of the group.  To say more than that would probably start to give the game away and I don’t want to do that.  There are several plot twists that are nicely executed among the strands that lead you to believe you know where this is going.  The script is reasonably well turned, with believable dialogue and well-drawn characters. 

Charlie Toland plays Jack, the legatee who draws his friends together to establish the speakeasy.  Jack also acts as a narrator, providing background and detail where necessary, which is helpful.   Charlie gives a strong and convincing performance which draws us into Jack’s world. 

Houston McDowall’s Sam is equally engaging, full of energy and pace with a quick wit which sometimes belies his more human side.  John-Michael Mahoney’s Michael is, I have to say, reminiscent of Al Pacino’s Michael in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film of Mario Puzo’s novel, The Godfather.  They share an awareness of the wider world, an understanding of the implications of actions and the ability to identify the strengths and weaknesses of friend and foe alike.  In this production, Michael and Sam are introduced as brothers, with Michael looking after the money.  Thomas Stansfield’s Ross was, for me, particularly noteworthy.  Thomas really inhabited the role of a “heavy” and made excellent use of his stature and physicality to reinforce the image.  Finally, Harry Osborne as Otto provides the gofer role very ably. 

Taylor Quinell’s Sarah combines an innocence and glamour which disguises a background of domestic violence, whilst Emily Rose-Tucker is the new girl in town who marries the boss.   I didn’t quite connect with Danni and Macie (Lucy Lombard and Gabriella Coleman respectively), not because they weren’t working at it – they were – but I felt a little additional direction might help to sharpen and harden the characters.

There were a couple of niggles, though, which detracted from an otherwise interesting proposition.

The band consisted of two Keyboards, Bass, Drums and Guitar.  The layout of the playing space meant that cast members delivering dialogue are often facing away from one or more sections of the audience, but the cast were not mic’d.  Thus, it was difficult to keep up with the plot in the dialogue sections, and harder still during musical numbers.  Unamplified voices will always struggle to be heard over amplified instruments and there is only so far that a band can be quietened down whilst providing the required feel for a number.  Much of the lyrics were simply lost, sadly.  Where resources are perhaps limited, I would respectfully invite the production team to consider prioritising the delivery of the lyrical content, which helps to inform and move the plot along.  The band were all fine players and sensitive to the task, but – sorry guys – I don’t think they were in a position to express the score as written and, for that venue, or one of a similar size and configuration, I would therefore have lost the band apart from Keyboard 1 and I would still have provided microphones for the cast.

Musically, I had an expectation of up-beat, two in the bar footstompin’ jazz, led by wailing trumpets and clarinets ripping through the blues and jazz forms that were fashionable at the time.  However, the band configuration seemed a more pragmatic solution, at least initially.  The use of string and woodwind effects in the keyboards hinted that the score was written for a larger ensemble, which would be interesting to hear.  However, for me, the overall feel was contemporary musical theatre throughout.  I would hasten to add that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  Hamilton, for example, uses a rap model to portray an 18th century tale.  In fact – and I may have been mistaken – but I think I might have detected a nod to Hamilton in the arrangement of one of the numbers, as well as a reference to Les Mis elsewhere, using a cascading arpeggio reminiscent of the intro to One More Day.   Witty, I liked that.

Costumes were contemporary, with the occasional nod toward the period by way of, for example, a watch-chain.  Two of the characters, Sarah and Grace, seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in full glitz evening wear, which was pleasant to look at, but perhaps stretched a point and, towards the end, Sarah appears in an above-the-knee dress, which again, is perfectly respectable, but didn’t seem to suggest 1920s New York.

Another thing I noted was that, at least twice in the script, the use of the word “metres” occurs as an indication of measurement.  In my innocence, I honestly didn’t think that the metric system was in use in the 1920s in New York.  A little research, however, revealed that immigrant families from continental Europe used it, which makes perfect sense, of course, but it still seemed a little out of place for characters with names such as “Ross”, “Michael”, or “Jack”, which hint at a more Celtic origin.  If these were anglicized or adopted names, that wasn’t brought out in the script. 

Also, if it is necessary to use today’s Financial Times, or, indeed, any other worthy organ, as a prop, it is probably worth folding it so that the banner headers are not so apparent, particularly with the audience close in.

On the up-side, the space was used imaginatively, making use of the four or five entrances to the stage and providing the opportunity for off-stage effects.  Similarly, the lighting was sympathetic and atmospheric, although there were several instances of a member of the cast being partially lit due, presumably, to being slightly off their mark.

If I’m honest, I think this one has potential, but would certainly benefit from a bit of detailed direction and, particularly, a review of how the music is most appropriately presented for whatever venue is used.  I salute John-Michael for his bravery, some might say audacity, in attempting to cover all bases, but, as it stands, there are some details which need ironing out.  I’m sure he and the company are up to that task and I genuinely wish them well with it.

Vince Francis, August 2022

Photography courtesy of Dmii

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