tue 16/07/2024

Cruel Intentions, The Other Palace review - uneasy vibes, hit tunes and sparkling staging | reviews, news & interviews

Cruel Intentions, The Other Palace review - uneasy vibes, hit tunes and sparkling staging

Cruel Intentions, The Other Palace review - uneasy vibes, hit tunes and sparkling staging

Jukebox musical gets toes tapping, but the thrill of transgression ain't what it used to be

Daniel Bravo and Abbie Budden in Cruel Intentions - So you're not actually Taylor Swift then?Pamela Raith

Transgression was so deliciously enticing. Back in the Eighties when I saw Les Liaisons Dangereuses in the West End on three occasions, life was simpler  or so us straight white men flattered ourselves to believe.

Consent was for unproblematic for over-16s (unless you were young, gay and male), there was no social media, nor even any camera phones, and Britney was still a decade away from sucking on a lollipop and asking sweating middle-aged men how was she supposed to know on primetime TV. 

Things have become more complicated since, rightly so, and transgression’s darker side has become more insistent. Power relations have muddied what is and isn’t genuine consent, social media has provided a platform for hideous bullying and, well, there's Harvey Weinstein. Essentially, transgression isn’t as much fun as it used to be  a welcome development for many, but a problem for source material like this.

Looking around the auditorium, I wondered how this 2015 musical version of the 1999 movie based on the 1782 novel would come across in 2024. Generation Z was well represented, TikTok and Snapchat more likely to be in their apps than Gmail and Facebook. I knew they’d be up for a bit of MTVish nostalgia, but would they laugh or hiss at Sebastian’s revenge porn uploading, his inflated male entitlement, his sister’s complicity in his early ascendancy to the patriarchy? 

Maybe at the Almeida or the Donmar, but this is the commercialest of commercial theatre, the audience in for a good time not a hard time, and that’s exactly what Jonathan O’Boyle’s production gives them. It’s a useful reminder that the loudest voices declaiming on changing social mores are not necessarily the most numerous (the show’s run was recently extended, quite the vote of confidence given the state of theatre today). It was evidence that even young people can judge the difference between genuinely cruel intentions and a piece of entertainment to be enjoyed rather than explored.

On those terms, does it work? The answer is a qualified yes, the best of the young cast’s work exactly what you expect of a hit musical in the West End, with big dance numbers, risqué costumes and eye candy for everyone wherever you look. Other elements of of a hit musical's elusive alchemy don't quite hang together, mostly down to the constraints of the jukebox format.     

Daniel Bravo is our antihero, Sebastian, buffed up bod, sportscar in the quad, notches on his bedpost. He’s the alpha male at his upscale private school, the favoured establishment for the education of the Upper East Side's Jeunesse Dorée. His stepsister, Kathryn (a belting, strutting Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky pictured above with Rose Galbraith) is, handily for the plot, the alpha female of the girls’ dorms and the sex-positive siblings soon hatch a plot to deflower a pair of newbies for a bet on one side and revenge on the other. 

Abbie Budden plays Annette, the virginal target of Sebastian’s seductive powers, all Tay-Tay fringe, boyfriend who goes to another school and saving herself for true love. Rose Galbraith is the object of Katryn’s sentimental education and Sebastian’s roving tongue. 

There’s room for a sweet romantic subplot focused on Barney Wilkinson’s closeted jock, Greg and his camp and charming lover Blaine (Josh Barnett) and a rather more mechanical and underwritten storyline based on the tension between Nickcolia King-N’Da’s music tutor and Jess Buckby’s racist New Yorker. It is to King-N’Da’s and Buckby’s credit that they escape such stereotypical roles to make their marks with real pathos and fine comic timing. 

With all this playing with fires already fanned by teenage hormones, you can bet somebody will get burned and somebody does. But not before a slew of Nineties hits. Now that’s what I call crowdpleasing music!

Without the coherence of a bespoke score, some songs are wedged in, slowing the plot and diminishing instead of enhancing the characters. That’s a price all jukebox musicals pay for the serotonin rush that whistles through the house when a banger is recognised. 

That joy was most palpable when TLC’s "No Scrubs" dropped to perfect comedic (and cruel) effect  even I almost applauded at the audacity. There’s a beautifully choreographed (by Gary Lloyd) rendition of Sixpence None The Richer’s "Kiss Me" that aches with sexual desire and The Cardigans’ ‘Lovefool’ is very much on the nose too. "Bittersweet Symphony" is a rousing, if predictable, closer.

There’s a lot of belt to enjoy/endure to taste (and a big reception for the biggest belter in town, Ms McCaulsky), but the second half becomes dominated by an approach that turns humble ballads into power ballads whether they’re suited to the treatment or not. That said, Ms Budden has a voice that effortlessly captures the nuance musical theatre singing demands  this is her professional debut and I’ve no doubt she’ll be on the West End stage for years to come with talent like that at her disposal.

It seems strange to refer to a Nineties soundtrack as nostalgic and stranger still to refer to a show less than a decade old as somewhat old-fashioned in its values, but it’s also a comfort too, the kind of escape musicals have always offered from a more complicated, more troublesome outside world. On that score, the show is as successful as its audience reaction suggests. On another score  the actual score itself, as t’were  the book is required to swerve in and out of an Noughties VH1 playlist and it can’t quite navigate those choppy waters without a capsize or two.

As long as you’re not expecting Hamilton (and there’s a slyly knowing nod right at the start of the show to those who might be) you’ll love Cruel Intentions. Now, whatever happened to Natalie Imbruglia? Ah, The Masked Singer  of course…     

Big dance numbers, risqué costumes and eye candy for everyone wherever you look


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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