The story behind this American musical is fascinating, but the way it’s told is less so. Henry Brown was a slave who mailed himself to an abolitionist state, and to freedom, in 1849.
Returning after success last year, the musical has undoubted high points, with some stirring second-half songs inspired by African-American music and a cast of excellent voices.
The narrative, though, which is almost entirely in direct address, is heavy-handed, zipping lightly through Henry Brown’s life from the delivery of his birth to a delivery of another kind.
Ben Harney’s directing is stilted, partly the fault of a small stage, squeezing 15 cast members into a tiny space, which stops the production from spreading its wings. But it’s also messy: with so many on all the time, there is a lot of rhubarbing and distracting stage business.
Which would be ok, except the person who’s speaking is rarely the focus of the stage picture, and the lighting doesn’t ever hone in on one person, so half the time we’re playing catch up as to who’s actually talking.
At times, too, the singing, accompaniment and percussion are all out of sync, which makes for a juddering experience.
Those problems are about ambition clashing with the limits of a fringe venue. On a bigger stage – off-Broadway maybe – and with a reworked script it would be a far more potent beast. And there’s no doubt that, in full song and with the 15-strong cast belting together, it’s a pretty powerful experience.