Set in America, 1881, within the young state of California, the town of Ashfall is revelling in the glory and financial benefits from recent gold strikes. With people arriving from all over the world to attain their portion of the goods, by whatever means necessary, the very raw, very basic idea of this plot does have a small flicker of potential if performed in the right space, with a strong cast, and with clear direction. None of this, unfortunately, is the case in this production.

There is a fierce band situated behind the acting space in this small venue, blasting out a rocky and countrified score. They are too loud. Even with microphones, it is hard to hear any of the lyrics over this mammoth accompaniment. I sat in the second row, genuinely straining to hear what stories, plot and information I could from any of the songs. If they were intending to convey any vital facts, they were unsuccessful. I could not tell you what was happening.

The location of the production does not help. The Lion and Unicorn Theatre is a perfectly fine venue, suited to smaller productions. Newland calls for a far vaster space, which could help avoid awkward blocking, cramped dance numbers, and possibly assist the balance of voices and band. The production, as it stands, is too ambitious in its volume for this small space; it needs adapting to at least have the chance of allowing us in, rather than pushing us out.

Besides the fact that the overall feel is one of overbearing brashness, the script is dreadful. It is completely unoriginal. One might argue that it need not be original, but we seem to have a very weird mixture of Parade, Les Miserables, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and a dash of Chicago, without any of the depth. By the end, I am not sure that this production actually knows what it is, or even wants to be. Any comedic moments in the text are too obviously pointed out and poorly portrayed, and songs are set up in an almost cabaret-esque style, rather than being an extension of the story. In general the music seems to spend too much time introducing characters or commenting on situations (and it's hard to find the relevance in some of them) rather than organically moving the plot along. There is no real drive in most of the songs and there are far too many of them. A lot of them seem unnecessary, unwarranted and irrelevant to the context, and this production hosts a plethora of ‘11 o’clock’ numbers. Almost every other minute we are subjected to another showstopper, but these big numbers will only really wow and impress us if they are far and few between. If they are one of many, they fail to excite us, and a show only really needs one ‘11 o’clock’ number! The songs actually needlessly prolong the duration of the show, rather than enhance the plot.

It is true that the cast have a difficult vehicle to work with, but even their performances do not assist this piece. At the start they appear timid, with a little too much caution behind the eyes. As I have suggested previously, I feel that they need a bigger space in which to embrace both the production and their audience. Much of the characterisation appears surface level; it is one dimensional, and has little or no gravitas. There is an obvious love triangle, (unresolved textually), which, through lack of direction and acting chemistry, goes almost unnoticed. As the characters are so undeveloped, the actors also fail to build character relationships. Sometimes it seems that they are struggling to know whether to speak/sing to each other or to their audience. They have not been guided on this. The actors also wrestle with some wavering American accents, and the whole production is hindered by some amateur lighting choices.

Endeavouring to find some redeeming features, it is fair to say that a few of the cast members have lovely voices, and there appears to be a relatively strong ensemble sound, albeit hidden by an overpowering band. Some of the songs could be enjoyable and entertaining as stand-alone numbers, but in the context of this show, seem more an example of procrastination.

It feels as though this production could do with going back into the workshopping process. It needs some severe cuts, rethinking, and to find a clear focus before it is a complete piece, ready to confront an audience.

Newland, at Lion and Unicorn TheatreDavid Richards reviews Newland at the Lion and Unicorn.1