One of the joys of seeing musicals based on true stories is the opportunity to learn about historical figures not often given the limelight. I’m particularly interested when such shows give the spotlight to women that history forgot, whether it be the wives of Henry VIII telling their side of the story or Eliza Hamilton sharing her tale in her husband’s musical biopic. So, I was excited to hear about new musical, Battersea Bardot, depicting actress Carol White, a star much closer to home; from Hammersmith in fact, despite the name the press gave her in her heyday. We meet Carol at the end of her life, before a series of flashbacks attempt to share her tale. Unfortunately what follows feels confused and struggles to do her justice.
A one-woman musical is a bold ambition, and there are moments in this performance that really do hint at promise. However, overall, it is a struggle to stay engaged. The action begins with a call to 911 in Miami, towards the end of Carol’s life when her excesses catch up with her at the age of 48. With loud sound effects, it’s difficult to make out some of the opening lines, despite the fact that Anne Rabbitt is mere metres from the audience. This continues to be a problem throughout the show, and perhaps one of the reasons why it’s hard to engage with events. Rabbitt appears to struggle with some of the vocal lines, and it can be a challenge to hear her above the small band (a piano and cello) or above sound effects that can feel overdone.
There are glimmers of fascinating anecdotes, but despite the musical’s runtime of 80 minutes, they feel glossed over. It takes a while to realise the Frank she’s talking about is Frank Sinatra, and on leaving the show I’m none the wiser about some of the other men she refers to, in particular Paul, whose phone call she seems to be endlessly waiting for. But who is Paul? There are truly horrific moments of sexual assault detailed during the show, but in the context of a complex plot they merely add to the sense of confused unease.
The music also struggles to keep the performance engaging: a lot of the songs feel the same, and – given that a musical identity is crucial – the tunes do tend to blur into one by the end of the evening. Moments that could be truly haunting, along with references to horrific incidents in Carol’s life, fail to pack a punch, and this is partly down to the score. There should, however, be a nod to pianist and musical director Gabrielle Ball who keeps the whole thing on track, and Annie Hodgson, whose cello playing is haunting and beautiful throughout.
I love to support new musicals: it’s a real privilege to see up and coming works meet their first audiences, and this is a piece packed with potential. But sadly, for me, it fails to hit the right note. Some plot development, clarity of characters and timelines, and bolder musical moments could make this one to watch and give Carol White the tribute she deserves.
Book, music and lyrics by Ewen Moore
Directed by Elizabeth Huskisson
Musical Direction by Gabrielle Ball
Battersea Bardot plays at Studio at New Wimbledon Theatre until 23 September. Further information and bookings can be found here.