The Lovers review – Shakespeare musical charms, but doesn’t always deliver

The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
Bell Shakespeare’s first ever musical puts some pop into A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and it is good fun, if you don’t think too hard about it

Bell Shakespeare is Australia’s national theatre company dedicated to performing the works of the Bard and his contemporaries. Their productions are varied in approach – they’ve set Henry V in a bunker during the London Blitz and placed The Comedy of Errors in a disco-driven 1970s – and the company has transformed some of the world’s most famous plays by applying new genres, tones and styles. However, in its 32 years, the company has never produced a musical – until now.

At first glance, The Lovers feels like a perfect fit for Bell. Written and composed by Laura Murphy, the musical is based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Subplots and characters have been trimmed down to focus on the play’s four young lovers, who are enchanted into romantic misadventure. Oberon and Puck, the only two other characters who remain from the original text, are styled here as fairies who love to spark love as much as Cupid does. But the essence of the original work remains alive and well. Murphy has even retained the play’s Elizabethan-era dialogue, up to a point: when the music starts, we hear the characters’ inner voices using contemporary cadences and expressions; when they sing, they speak the language of pop music.

The excitement on opening night was undeniable. Murphy’s pop melodies are infectiously appealing and remarkably assured. Musical director Andrew Worboys and his four-piece band turn each number into a party. And the cast – Natalie Abbott as Helena, Blake Appelqvist as Demetrius, Stellar Perry as Oberon, Monique Sallé as Puck, Brittanie Shipway as Hemia and Jerrod Smith as Lysander – contains some of the most exciting musical theatre artists in the country, relishing every riff and catchy chorus.

The Lovers, Bell Shakespeare’s musical production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream
The Lovers cast ‘contains some of the most exciting musical theatre artists in the country’. Photograph: Daniel Boud

But by the time we reach the second act, it becomes clear that this musical needed more support to really soar. Musical storytelling moves differently than plays; central theses and subversions on theme need to play out across the spoken and sung text at different times and using different tools across each – motif, metaphor, confession, discussion, discovery – to build to a conclusion. Conflicts that spill from scenes into music need to be carefully balanced in both of these narrative worlds, to elevate and expand on each.

In The Lovers, the songs don’t quite keep up with the characters’ evolving thoughts. It doesn’t help that the production, under the big-hearted direction of Shaun Rennie, is occasionally self-conscious about its pop vernacular, signalling rhymes and riffs with comedic gestures or too-broad delivery.

With The Lovers, Murphy is questioning what it really means to fall in love and how we take care of ourselves within it, but her characters come to the abrupt realisation that they have already found the one – themselves – in the last five minutes. In a musical, where we have direct access to their inner worlds, the characters’ shift in thinking should play out musically and lyrically, building and growing alongside their journeys through the plot. This is a developmental, dramaturgical issue that should have been addressed in the production process. But Bell isn’t a musical theatre company.

It’s hard to watch The Lovers without wishing it had received more support: there’s so much potential in the work. Murphy’s musical instincts are exciting, and her occasionally derivative lyrics sit alongside some unexpected gems, all written with an appealing and near-irresistible warmth and humour. She can be forgiven a hacky repeat number about love in a time before “swiping right”, that asks if the kids are DTL (down to love) in a world that’s DTF, when she also gives us Chasing My Tail, a near-perfect song about Helena’s unrequited love. (Abbott, who played Muriel Heslop in the return season of Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, is The Lovers’ standout performer).

Still, the audience reaction on opening night was near ecstatic. There is always going to be a place for good pop and a sense of fun onstage, and sound designer David Bergman ensures the cast and the band reach out to the audience with the clarity required to connect. Marg Horwell’s playful set becomes a wonderland delight in the second act, and the company’s endless energy and collective charm often smooths over the occasional clunkiness.

If you don’t think too hard about it, The Lovers is a great time. I hope for a return season, just to see how it might grow and change with the benefit of time and a little more distance from the writing process. One thing, however, is clear: Murphy is a writer and composer to watch.


Cassie Tongue

The GuardianTramp

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