Conservatives grow anxious over the free spirited developments in London’s swinging sixties. In these politically tense times, Prime Minister Douglas Dukes decides to lay low and appoints Christian extremist Simon Di Angelo to take his place. Di Angelo immediately fulfils his dream of ‘cleansing’ the streets of their ‘wickedness’. As consequence of the new, strict laws, novice nun Isobel finds her brother imprisoned and due to be hanged for impregnating his fiancée Julia. Together with reporter Charlie Lucre, the nun goes on a media campaign against Di Angelo. However, the more often the two are confronted, the more Di Angelo falls for and lusts after Isobel. He proposes a sordid deal: He will pardon Isobel’s brother if she gives her virginity to him. Isobel is torn between her commitment to God and that to her own kin; Lucre tries his hardest to come up with a plan that will save both her purity and expose the politician’s shameful hypocrisy.
Robin Kingsland and Chris Barton (who also directs this production) update Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure with astonishing faithfulness. Music and lyrics can compete with some more established musical numbers and lead to some genuinely touching moments in the story. Only, where Shakespeare jumps right into action, Desperate Measure wavers slightly by establishing minor characters for too long. It’s about an hour into the running time when the dynamics and tensions of the leading characters are properly foregrounded. Also, the musical twists sympathies a little too much when the main opposing forces become the cruel realities of the exploitative sex industry, and heartless religious fundamentalism.
Regrettably, the voices of the cast often cannot keep up with the musical numbers, and some ensemble songs are so dense both in rhythms and lyrics that the sung words turn illegible. The more talented voices (such as Tosin Thompson’s) do not get much chance to shine, or only quite late into the play, such as Ellie Nunn. Nunn, who portrays Isobel, sings beautifully and delivers a heartfelt performance. As soon as her character gains centre stage, her energy carries the production and is better off for it. In opposition to Charlie Merriman’s entertainingly sleazy Di Angelo, Desperate Measure’s potential becomes tangible.
Running the show from the background (both in the play as in reality) is Angharad George-Carey as scheming Lady Josie Escalus and world-weary prostitute Chantille. Her performance is top-notch; she rises above the undertone of ‘school performance’ that lingers on the production. This aura may, unfairly, be the fault of exclusively casting very young actors, but unfortunately prevails. Given the general stage clumsiness of the performers, it is surprising they are trusted with a few instances of real fire (candles, matches, lighters). Sadly, the production as a whole does not exceed the status of ‘having potential’.
Reviewed by Lisa Theresa Downey-Dent
Photo: Dee Shulman
Desperate Measures is playing at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 20 December 2015