Pros: Fresh and conceptually superb.
Cons: The promising but flawed script is an overly ambitious undertaking for a young, inexperienced cast.
Napoleon Blown Apart is a show with an identity crisis. The original script by Alex Brown follows as assassination attempt on Napoleon Bonaparte on Christmas Eve of 1800. Director and writer Alex Brown is clearly a force to be reckoned with when it comes to concept, and similarly designer Jacob Hughes deserves plenty of credit. The show looks spectacular and includes some brilliant stylistic choices – the use of lighting, the cast, and props in the climactic explosion to name but one, was striking and perfectly executed. Indeed, it’s for Brown’s conceptual talent that I must recommend the show despite my reservations. There’s no question he’s going places, and I hope he’ll continue to workshop Napoleon Blown Apart into something more focused and a better vessel for his directorial skill.
The production’s main problem is that it can’t decide on what it wants to be: is it a comedy (see the clever pun in the title, along with plenty of jokes and caricatures), a drama (an act of war costs 15 innocents their lives), or a musical (the show touts itself as ‘a play with songs,’ though I hardly think two stanzas of opera and a handful of renditions of the French National anthem qualify it as such?) As the script meanders through these various genres without fully committing to any, it becomes rather difficult to relate to.
It doesn’t help that the play is about an attempted assassination plot. There is very little at stake when we already know what happened to Napoleon and that the events unfolding pose no real threat. Much of the play seemed to me like waiting for the inevitable moment when things were going to go back to normal.
Perhaps all this is too be expected and forgiven considering the project is part of the highly ambitious Grimeborn festival, which showcases adaptations of rarely seen works from emerging creatives. Grimeborn is an initiative of the Arcola Theatre and is now in its eighth year, meaning there is in fact an audience for these types of experiments in theatre. The trendy and charming Arcola Theatre is great in its own right with its delightfully hip vibe. However the intimacy of the space did this particular production few favors. With the contrived performances and genre-confusion, the closeness to the action was more uncomfortable than anything else.
To add to the struggle for an audience member, the chemistry between script and performance is lacking. Neither Napoleon nor his adversaries make for particularly sympathetic leads, and Napoleon’s wife Josephine, though likeable enough on the surface, is vapid and uninvolved in the action. The only character worth rooting for is Cope, an innocent servant girl hacked into the assassination plot, but she isn’t introduced until at least half an hour into the play and remains very decidedly a side character throughout. Though clearly individually talented, the cast does little to work off one another in my opinion, reminding me often of school plays: a lot of well-informed line reading and recitation but very little genuine interaction.
Between dialogues however, I can wholeheartedly commend the cast for the ensemble and musical scenes. The hustling and bustling, high-concept ensemble scenes were the play’s true strengths. With Brown’s organisation, the high energy of the full cast gave the play some truly shining moments. I would personally want the creative team to more fully develop the musical aspect, as this is clearly the where the joy and passion are to be found. The performers’ musical talent is great, and the use of the instruments is another stylistic stroke of brilliance from Brown.
It wasn’t always an easy one to sit through, but it’s a production worth supporting, and I’d suggest that if you’re keen on keeping up and upcoming directorial talent, Brown is a name you’ll want to keep in mind. The young cast and fledgling script have true potential, and there are worse things than spending an evening supporting developing talent at the Arcola.
Author and Director: Alex Brown
Designer: Jacob Hughes
Composer: Daniel Saleeb
Producer: Arcola Theatre Production Company/IdeasTap
Booking Until: 2 August 2014
Box Office: 020 7503 1646
Booking Link: http://www.arcolatheatre.com/tickets-for/arcola/napoleon-blown-apart