After seven separate West End runs, Fame is back in London, landing at the Peacock Theatre as part of a 2018/19 UK tour.
Based on the 1980s film and TV series of the same name, the show follows a group of students battling their way through the highs and lows of studying at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. This particular production, both directed and choreographed by Nick Winston (Rock of Ages, The Wedding Singer, Annie), marks the show’s 30th anniversary, and, despite some exemplary efforts by the cast and creative team, the fact that Jose Fernandez’s book is three decades old really does show through.
Once the curtain rises, Fame opens exactly how you’d expect. A bunch of big, loud, in your face dance numbers enclosed in short, snappy scenes of the soon-to-be-students auditioning for their dream place in performing arts school – ‘PA’. There’s no doubt from the outset exactly where and when we are, immediately being drawn into an 80s land of anxious, hopeful, ready-to-take-on-the-world youngsters. The outside madness of a central London evening quickly forgotten.
What awaits as a backdrop once you’re in the world of Fame, though, is far from a perfect escape. The set and lighting design is tired and predictable, with no real surprises to draw the eye or create intrigue, and the less said about the tacky plastic taxi moving up and down the scenery in the final section, the better.
One of the plus points of a fairly ‘meh’ stage design, however, is that there’s nothing to detract from some stunning performances from the cast. Both Keith Jack (BBC’s Any Dream Will Do, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat) as Nick, and Molly McGuire (Closer to Heaven, Carrie the Musical) as Serena really give their all to their roles, with the tension, the fallouts, and the passion of their relationship pitched perfectly. The latter’s rendition of Let’s Play a Love Scene is stunningly heartfelt, too.
Meanwhile, Jamal Kane Crawford (The Bodyguard, Guys and Dolls, Thriller Live) truly shines as Tyrone, laying bare his battle with both the school and himself, and allowing the audience to invest fully in his story. Jorgie Porter (Hollyoaks, Dancing on Ice, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here) and Stephanie Rojas (In The Heights, Wonder.land, Love Me Tender), as Iris and Carmen respectively, put on a brilliant display, bringing their characters—as underwritten as they are—to life with real believability.
The real standout performance of the show comes from Mica Paris as a firm but fair Miss Sherman, leaving me desperate for more by the interval, and absolutely thrilled when I got it in the second act – Paris’ These Are My Children blowing the whole auditorium away.
With a cast as excellent as this, it’s a real shame that they’re let down by a book that very much shows its age. A punchy mix of catchy tunes and bombastic choreography from Winston and his team can’t always hide the fact that Fame’s story development is pretty poor when measured against today’s standards. Big plot points seem to come from nowhere, characters’ storylines and relationships are left hugely underdeveloped, and the whole piece lacks depth. In a story that follows young people trying to make sense of the world, it just feels like so many opportunities are missed. Even on press night—where friends and family are among the excited supporters in the crowd—I couldn’t help but notice that most of the jokes failed to land. Of course, nothing quite says a musical was written some time ago like a woman’s weight and the idea that a man might be gay both being played for laughs, too.
In all, this latest production of Fame to hit London offers what the musical always has – a fun soundtrack and impeccable dance numbers, brought to life by a hardworking and hugely committed team of actors. In today’s theatre world, however, you have to wonder if that’s enough. The question of whether this show continues to be a hit may best be answered by the decision to put a “let’s see you on your feet” call to action to the audience during the final number. Fame passes for now, but will certainly need a few re-writes, and a bit more breathing space for backstories if it truly is ‘gonna live forever…’
Fame runs at the Peacock Theatre until October 19th.
Words by Ollie Cole.