[Title of Show] at Waterloo East Theatre
Metatheatre is a paradoxical concept. In one sense it is simple: a play within a play – or in today’s pop culture terminology, “playception”. In another, however, it is incredibly complex. The circular nature of self-reference and self-awareness is such that the meanings of their use can appear almost endlessly layered. [Title of Show] teeters around its metadramatic possibilities, sticking to the cheaper aspects of what “playception” provides for an audience. Perhaps this has always been the objective for Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell’s musical. But whatever was originally intended, the effect remains one of a frustrating lack of depth.
First performed in New York in 2004, this new production of [Title of Show] is directed by Will Keith, who takes a young cast to Waterloo East Theatre. The musical follows the lives of four young New Yorkers who are, well, trying to write a musical. The introductory song, Untitled Opening Number, clearly sets out the intent of the piece: Hunter, Jeff and their two friends Heidi and Susan sing very much in the present tense, the lyrics describing the formulaic nature of their own opening number. As the performance continues these sorts of references litter the slightly awkward script: Hunter, played by the energetic Louie Westwood, condemns his best friend’s decision to simply slide across stage in an office chair for a scene change, complaining that it needs a little bit of background music to show time is passing.
For the most part, the songs are presented well. It is only a shame that genuine four-part harmony is rare – when it does crop up the cast lock together satisfyingly. Unfortunately, these positive aspects of performance are weighed down by regular slips out of the New York accent and some flatly told jokes. The latter of these issues is not helped by the production’s own concept. When deliberately sending up its own lack of humour, originality or clunky dramatic devices, it doesn’t change the fact that the audience will experience their impact. Whilst Bowen’s music needs to have some elements of classic Broadway in order to achieve its ironic, self-referential effect, the collateral is an unoriginal score; though Hunter’s dismissal of Jeff’s chair slide is arguably an amusing hint of satire, it equally appears as an excuse for unimaginative or lazy writing.
There are moments of charm, however, that cover up these issues. In the penultimate song, the characters claim they’d “rather be nine people’s favourite thing than 100 people’s ninth favourite thing”, creating a curiously admirable shield against criticism. What an easy way to look at theatre: sure, it might be an irritating musical, but if you don’t like it, who cares?
[Title of Show] is at Waterloo East Theatre from 6th until 25th of September, for further information or to book visit here.