The Quentin Dentin Show still has capacity to grow further beyond its current seventy minutes. A few more characters to share the burden of the songs, and a few more vertiginous plot twists could extend it into a full-length musical.
This show was a stand-out success in last year’s Edinburgh Festival, and now comes to London with significant changes and additions – a new actor in the lead role, other cast changes, topped and tailed anew, four fresh songs, and many tweaks to the script so as to make it ‘meaner and funnier’ according to creator of music, books, and lyrics, Henry Carpenter.
As you take your seats you are greeted by two ‘robot chicks’ in white overalls, an early hint that the fourth wall is to be broken down. There is a three-piece band already in place wearing shades and engaged in a continuous four-note riff. In the opening scene one of the three white-clad friends is set to be promoted if he passes a test – this is Quentin Dentin himself (Luke Lane), and in the next hour his task is to induce an ordinary couple Keith and Nat (Jamie Tibke & Shauna Riley) to accept his formula for happiness.
Keith and Nat are a couple in their twenties who met at college but are now drifting apart from one another. He is failing to finish a first novel and she is bored with her job in a pharmacy. We meet them bickering on a sofa, and as Nat flounces out to meet friends, Keith fiddles with his radio until Quentin appears in a dazzling white suit, gold tie and shoes. Now the fun begins….
What follows in the next hour is a sequence of songs and dance routines that are a parody of a game show, as ever more frenetic host Dentin tries to seduce this refractory couple into swapping their unsatisfactory lives for one of his conventional formulas for happiness. The tone is largely frothy and comic but there are darker shadows if you care to look for them.
The boundaries of conformity and individuality are the more serious subject that lies beneath all the glitter and showmanship. While we may be dissatisfied in many ways with our own lives and the choices we make, what truck should we have with the panaceas peddled more widely? Are these liberating, or in fact just another and indeed worse form of conventionality, with abandonment of independent thought and action as the consequence? Will Nat and Keith succumb to the gold happiness pills, or keep their distance?
The script and the gambits it presents are tight and diverting, and the ‘surfer rock’ score played by the band is catchy and very well executed. It suits the mood of knowing camp and tricksy cool that the show as a whole seeks to embody. Perhaps the lyric writing is the most impressive aspect – witty, elegant and often acidic, the words are continuously audible, which is not only a tribute to the diction of the singers but to the naturalness of the word setting. All the musicians have their moments but Mickey Howard’s guitar solo is the real deal. The ubiquitous and multi-talented Carpenter sings and plays the keyboard too. The best song – ‘Numbers’ – could easily live an independent life from the show.
No rock musical of this format can escape the cheekily baleful shadow and the barefaced cheek of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. There is a lot of Franknfurter’s brazen mockery and camp debunking in the role of Quentin, and the couple at the centre of the action here are in a sense of reworking of the original clueless innocents – Brad and Janet. But there are a lot of other influences too – the imagery evokes Bowie at his most mysterious, and the central performance owes much to Jagger at his most imperious and grandiose. There is more than a dash of the cool hauteur and disdain of the Pet Shop Boys in their pomp too.
The question is whether the show is more than the sum of these inevitable influences and parts, and on the whole it is. For all of its slightly kooky craziness there is original charm and invention in abundance, together with darker elements if you choose to look for them. It has all the scope to become something of a minor cult musical. The professional technical and musical aspects are exceptionally well done and it taps into quite a few aspects of the current spirit of the age which will resonate widely. Its satirical, glitzy, verbally astringent but musically lush textures impress, and the simultaneous embrace of and scorn for celebrity culture is right on target for a young audience.
However, these virtues would remain virtual without a commanding central performance, and this is delivered with panache by Luke Lane. He is hardly ever off-stage and sings most of the songs too. With debonair good looks and a fine, pleasing, varied voice he is fully up to the demands of the role and dominates proceedings. An impressive compere from the outset, his mounting panic as his gambits do not work out as planned and increasing contempt for his unappreciative charges serve to add further layers of comic pleasure on top of his basic character. Lane is a natural performer for musical theatre and we should expect to see more of him in this genre.
Much of the movement onstage is generated by the two zombie/robot/dolls who do impressive work with Caldonia Walton’s inventive and amusing choreography. There is not much space at Above the Arts, and they manage to move in and around the audience with impressive comfort and dexterity. It is a physical show for everyone involved with little in the way of set beyond the sofa and the bits of apparatus associated with the game show. Yet there is no lack of atmosphere overall and more than enough suggestion. Walton, who also directs, deserves great credit for this successful adaptation to the restrictions and opportunities of the space.
Riley and Tibke create a good lack of chemistry between each other, and then enter into the frenzied action with gusto. They have more independence of action as the show reaches its climax where there are a few intriguing plot twists that give them a lot more to do.
This show still has capacity to grow further beyond its current seventy minutes. A few more characters to share the burden of the songs, and a few more vertiginous plot twists could extend it into a full-length musical. The subject is rich enough, in its comic and serious dimensions, to take some further inflation, and the characters and scenario more than strong enough. Carpenter has been shrewd in developing the evening slowly but surely in the light of different performance contexts, but he has not yet reached Quentin’s glittery limits.