It’s been a long time since I felt this way about an album. It’s also not likely that I’ve ever been as well prepared to write a review as I am now. I’ve had a preview copy for a couple of months and I’ve listened to it hundreds of times. You see where this review is going. In short: a new Neo-Victorian musical with an original libretto and completely outstanding composition and vocalists. Listen HERE and HERE.
And now something for the curious lover of details:
If you’ve been following Clive Nolan’s career it’s hardly surprising or odd that he runs his own musical theatre company, Caamora. Nolan is classically educated and although he’s made his name as a keyboard player in progressive rock bands like Pendragon and Arena, he’s no simple rocker but rather stands firmly with one foot in composition and the other in orchestration. The first time the listener could sense this was probably in Strangers On a Train’s second album The Key: The Labyrinth (1993), and when he subsequently wrote the (rock)musicals Jabberwocky and The Hound of the Baskervilles with Oliver Wakeman around the turn of the century, you could tell where his heart truly lies. 2007 saw the arrival of his first Caamora musical, She, which was based on H. Rider Haggards book by the same name.
Then Nolan took a daring step; one which sets him apart from most of the musical theatre scene today. This scene is conservative, which of course is a subjective statement, but let’s take a brief look. The West End and Broadway still do The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Oliver!, and it would seem new productions are mostly based on films, books and particularly popular music (ABBA, Queen etc.). The big stages have little room for new stories. And this Nolan has the nerve to write original librettos?
In 2013 Alchemy was released, where we met Nolan’s alter ego, Professor Samuel King and the other characters for the first time. In King’s Ransom we join the adventure again and the year is now 1845. British romantic nationalism reigns supreme (but pay attention and you’ll find it being subtly questioned) and the entire libretto is an elegant tribute to Neo-Victorianism. Nolan mentions steampunk in the preface, but honestly I can’t find any clear references to that in the libretto. I’m thinking more of Dan Simmons’ Drood than William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, to draw comparisons to literature. Purely aesthetically the ensemble has embraced steampunk fashion, but why not go all in? Just how awesome would it have been if William and King rode some mechanical beast when they went to see Alderdyce or if they communicated through a steam driven camera? The possibilities are endless. Please don’t let it stop at corsets and goggles.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The adventure takes off when William Gardelle (Guy Barnes has taken over the role) and Helena Blake (Christina Booth) approaches Tom Worthy (Robbie Gardner) because King needs his help. The Prime Minister Robert Peel has been poisoned and is dying. Professor King has made a deal with the British throne: London’s underworld and its people will be left in peace if King saves Peel. King has a new enemy, Colonel Luther Scovil (Chris Longman), who is the mastermind behind the plan to murder the Prime Minister and possibly overthrow the Queen and take over the budding Empire. King’s plan is to find the mystical Unicorn Orchid, which is said to possess the power of saving lives, possibly even cure death itself. There’s just one problem. Captain Fergus Maunder, who brought the flower to England and hid it, is dead. Tom is a reluctant psychic medium and is asked to summon Maunder’s spirit. Maunder is played by Alan Reed, whom we know from Pallas and Nolan’s old band Strangers On a Train, as well as in She, and it’s pretty entertaining to hear him in such a different role.
Parallel to the adventure we get to follow two love stories. Nolan repeats the pattern from Alchemy where William and his love interest (this time Doctor Josephine Kendrick, played by Verity White) have a better prognosis of ever getting one another, whereas Professor King and his companion Eva Bonaduce (now played by Gemma Ashley) hide their feelings for and from one another. A bit tiresome with the trope ‘dark, brooding man who never talks about feelings’? Perhaps, but the bonds and the loyalty between Eva and King and the hidden feelings create a romantic tension which totally knocks you off your feet when they sing (in separate rooms) about how they really feel. I’m going to stick my neck out and claim that ”Silent Words” is the best duet ever written for the stage. So there.
But does Nolan turn the concept of the musical on its head? Nope. Not at all. Instead, picture if you will the exquisite orchestration of Berlioz and Bizet, the light-heartedness of Gilbert & Sullivan’s musical operettas and the melodic hit-based grandeur of Lloyd Webber during the 70s and 80s. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nolan likes Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as well. The humour and the lively enthusiasm from Chitty’s ”P.O.S.H”. and the honest sensuousness of ”Lovely Lonely Man” give flavour to Nolan’s numbers ”Death By Misadventure” and ”Solitary Man”. It’s not borrowed or mimicked, but rather a tradition. A flavour you recognize and love. Another familiar move is to use musical themes. When the traitor in King’s Ransom is about to be exposed, Nolan uses the theme from ”One for the Noose” from Alchemy. But it would be too simple to use it as is. Naturally he wrote an alternating variation on the theme. When the characters sing about their plan B, they do it to the music of ”Quaternary Plan” from Alchemy. And there’s more for the keen listener to discover. I understand that plenty of people who will love this album won’t analyse it to bits, but to me that’s what separates a pretty good album from one I’ll listen to hundreds of times in just a few months.
Here I’d like to pause briefly to discuss why a musical such as this is needed in 2017. It targets the good (perhaps even mythical) sides of the Victorian era and focuses solely on the romantic, entertaining side. There is no intersectional discourse and no gender critique. (That said there’s no racism or blatant misogyny either, just to be clear.) Sure, one can study King’s Ransom though these spectacles too; there’s plenty to discuss, I’m sure. But I need an adventure which is nothing more than uplifting entertainment. Must I always judge everything by the standards of the harsh reality? I don’t know, perhaps you only truly change things if you question everything, always. Nolan mentions escapism and I’m all for that; to embrace a little Neo-Victorianism, corset fetishism, dapper moustaches, loyalty, optimism about the future, the feeling that we can do this. The real world is utter rubbish at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed. North Korea, the US and Russia are about to explode in all directions and the welfare state is coming apart. I try my best to be the enlightened academic and I read about class, gender issues and politics in order to feel that we can change some things for the better. But I also love Conan Doyle, Jeeves & Wooster, John William Waterhouse, Dickens, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Victorian kitchen gardens! I need this for the sake of balance. And yes, I do understand that that in itself is a privilege.
Something else I need more of in my life is Gemma Ashley. She has taken over the role of Eva from Vicky Bolley and although Bolley was great, Gemma Ashley is something truly special. Why isn’t she a star at West End already? Unfathomable. She masters musical, folk tunes, opera as well as more theatrical material. She gets lots of opportunities to shine and you can understand why. But her voice also blends so well with that of the others – particularly Nolan – and here’s to hoping that she will become Nolan’s new musical companion and that the weak link of Caamora, Agnieszka Swita (from Alchemy and She) is phased out. One of the other main vocalists, Guy Barnes, has also continued what someone else started, and just like Gemma he shines just that little bit stronger than his predecessor. Make no mistake, I thoroughly enjoyed David Clifford in the role of William, but Guy Barnes is a star of musical theatre. He brings the drama, he has the timbre. Just listen to ”Letting My Demons go”.
To pull off a musical like this, you not only need confidence in your singing, but also in your ability to act and to incorporate a bit of theatre. Nolan’s lyrics aren’t exactly oh yeah baby. How about this?
”So embrace the solemn company of corpses
Applaud these mystic supernatural forces
Let no one tear asunder
This transcendental wonder
A universal thunder
And no more blinding fear of being
Haunted by the company of corpses”
Heard it before? Didn’t think so. Set your inner nerd free and immerse yourself in literary references and Dickensian names. Luther Scovil? What comes to mind? I think of Luther as in Lex Luther and Scovil as in scorn and evil, and of course scoville which is the scale of how hot a chili fruit is.
So, can you listen to this musical without caring too much about curious rhymes and recurring themes? Of course. It’s a traditional musical. Grandeur, boy meets girl, heroes win. But if you’ve read this far, I’m pretty sure you too love to go beneath the surface.