When Charles Dickens died in 1870 he was in the middle of writing his 15th novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Fans of his work have long since been fascinated by this unfinished thriller, which bursts at the seams with 19th century caricatures and lashings of high drama. Rupert Holmes’ musical rendering is a play-within-a-play, with a troupe of music hall entertainers performing a dramatisation of the novel, complete with musical interludes, plenty of dancing and a chairman to keep everything under control.
David Francis, Richard Stirling and NatalieDay in The Mystery of Edwin Drood at the Arts Theatre, London (previous picture shows Wendi Peters) Photo: Claire Bilyard
Holmes’ score captures something of the style too, mixing operatic ballads with bawdy sing-a-long numbers that serve to illustrate a hugely melodramatic narrative. In a final coup, the unwritten conclusion to the story is decided by audience vote with a different ending possible each night.
Aria Entertainment’s lively production bursts with colour and vitality echoing the period from the glare of the footlights to the rich gold and crimson decor. The cast handle the broad acting style with panache and balance the melodrama neatly with their music hall personae, stealing bows if a scene goes particularly well. Wendi Peters, perhaps better known as Cilla Battersby Brown in TV’s Coronation Street, is deservedly the draw here, playing an unlikely opium dealer named Princess Puffer. The material suits Peters’ tongue-in-cheek delivery perfectly and the actor possesses a decidedly period timbre to her voice that adds authenticity to her musical numbers.
This is however very much an ensemble piece and there are several fine performances, not least from Daniel Robinson as the presumed villain John Jasper and Paul Hutton as the hapless village stone mason Durdles. Loula Geater practically steals the show with her heavily accented Helena Landless and there are some wonderful steely glances from Victoria Farley as heroine Rosa Budd. Natalie Day strikes a determined figure as Victorian male-impersonator Alice Nutting, here portraying the self-assured Edwin Drood and the whole is presided over by music hall chairman William Cartwright played by Denis Delahunt.
Director Matthew Gould steers his cast with a steady hand to recreate the charm, wit and sheer fun of the working class music hall. Rupert Holmes’ vision of Victorian England may not be too accurate but for entertainment value it’s fairly hard to beat.