The Mystery of Edwin Drood is a delightful 1985 Tony-winning musical which Aria Entertainment have splendidly revived in a cosy pub for a night of light-hearted entertainment. The gregarious cast act, sing, and dance with 19th century charm while they regale us wirh a mischievous ‘whodunnit’ tale whose conclusion ends up in the audiences hands.
Rupert Holmes’s musical is inspired by Charles Dickens’ fifteenth and final novel, which was never finished due to Dickens’ untimely death. If you’ve ever read A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations or any of the celebrated British author’s works, then the characters will all be quite familiar to you. Set in 1870s London, this play-within-in-a-play introduces us to John Jasper, Edwin Drood’s uncle and the musical’s two-faced villain, who wants Edwin’s betrothed, Rosa Bud, all for himself. Edwin and Rosa have been engaged to be married since they were children and feel somewhat resentful at having to follow their parent’s wishes. As Jasper conducts Rosa in a singing lesson with deviously desirous undertones, brother and sister Neville and Helena Landless arrive from Ceylon under the local Reverend Crisparkle’s charge. Immediately Neville and Edwin are at odds with each other over Neville’s foreignness and Edwin’s aristocratic airs. Of course, any Dickens’s story wouldn’t be complete without the era’s ‘others’—The Princess Puffer, mistress of an opium den which Jasper frequents and Durdles, the drunken graveyard keeper, who becomes a pawn and witness to Jasper’s evil plotting. The morning after a stormy Christmas dinner with Uncle Jasper, the Landless siblings, Rosa and the Reverend, Edwin is announced missing and all of the characters become suspect.
Immediately upon entering the makeshift blackbox theatre we are greeted by a sociable cast who help us to our seats while singing along to various tunes from the Music Hall Royale’s song sheet, which we have been given with our programmes and are encouraged to join in. The warm nature of the ensemble who wink, smile and shake our hands makes one feel right at home instantly. As the production begins we are introduced to our narrator, Mr. James Hitchens (effortlessly played by Denis Delahunt), who reminds us to be vigilant for clues as we are to choose the ending of this unfinished story by casting our vote near the end of the second act. The play-within-in-a-play aspect allows for character breaks and grand introductions to the ‘actors’ playing their roles (where it becomes apparent Miss Alice Nutting (Natalie Day), the famed boy actress playing Edwin Drood, has been somewhat of a Victorian diva). Musical interludes pertaining to the confusion over the double roles they have taken on (‘Both Sides of the Coin’), and a lovely plea by the actor playing Jasper’s waiter to have a bigger part (‘Never the Luck’) complement the congenial ambiance of a theatrical past where respectability and graciousness were the norm.
Director Matthew Gould and musical director James Cleeve have fashioned an endearing production with a perfectly casted team of actors who take on their parts with incredible composure and joi de vivre. The songs were all executed beautifully with just enough originality to keep the performance dynamic and vibrant. Wendi Peters’ high-spirited faultless Princess Puffer won the audience over with her rendition of ‘The Wages of Sin.’ Daniel Robinson practically stole the show with ‘A Man Could Go Quite Mad,’ which was easily reminiscent of Jekyll and Hyde, while Victoria Farley and Natalie Day’s ‘Perfect Strangers’ was pleasantly melodious. I was quite charmed by Paul Hutton’s Durdles who managed to engage the audience in the ensemble numbers and proved a fair dancer. The dance numbers were minimal according to the space, but choreographed brilliantly with humour and refreshed Vaudeville-style moves.
The design team have done a wonderful job of creating just enough atmosphere at the right moments with simple techniques. The small space affords three long rows of centre seating, which curve to the left and end where the musical accompaniment begins. A row of red velvet curtains gathered above allude to the Music Hall environment, while a chair to the left with a fireplace and a picture of Rosa’s mother are all that’s needed to indicate Jasper’s home. Small rectangular flats with black and white photographs of the town’s monuments designate scene changes with ease, and a smoke machine adds to the eerie scenes of Princess Puffer’s opium den and the sinister graveyard.
It’s no wonder this musical has won accolades in the past. With the right creative team, inventive design, and a polished cast, Edwin Drood soars and is bound for a successful run. If you’re looking for a simply lovable night of entertainment, this production is a must.