performance date: 20 Oct 2010
venue: Bexleyheath, Kent
reviewer/s: Katie Stone (Independent review)
The Edward Alderton Theatre has a proud history of experimenting and taking risks going back to its second production in 1976 which was written by one of the then members. Since its foundation, it has continued a tradition of producing shows that one wouldn’t normally see on a provincial stage (professional or amateur), and on occasion a new work, such as Terry Williams’ ‘Seconds Out!’ which is currently in the middle of a sell-out run at the Bexleyheath theatre. Nevertheless popularity is no indicator of quality.
Based loosely on the life of Freddie Mills, ‘Seconds Out!’ is a musical that follows Mills’ rise from a big-hearted milkman to World Boxing Champion, taking in a spell as an RAF pilot during World War II. Along the way Mills is taken under the wing of fairground owner ‘Ma Basham’, is befriended by an East End spiv known only as ‘Favours’, and of course falls in love. Those who are picky about details will note that the real life Mills’ early life (and career as a milkman) was actually spend in Dorset, and as such the characters in the early scenes would probably not conformed to the EastEnders stereotypes depicted here - but hell - don’t let the truth get in the way of a good show!
The production team have worked hard to defy the theatre’s limitations and in the first half rattles along swiftly, using a minimalist set augmented with allusion to different locations being provided by projected images, sound effects and rolled on structures - a street lamp creates a road, a single door in a frame creates an office, and the boxing ring is innovatively formed by a piece of rope held at each corner by a performer. It was such a shame then, that these ideas weren’t continued into the second act, when set changes were carried out behind closed curtains and therefore the pace slows dramatically. One would suggest that a show either uses curtains or doesn’t - not do half and half.
For whatever reason, the lead roles (and a number of supporting characters) were filled by professional performers albeit underpinned by a backbone of regulars from the Edward Alderton. It has to be said it was hard to distinguish between the two, with the “amateurs” holding their own alongside the “pros”. How this situation came about is a matter for the internal management of the Theatre and should not be within the scope of a review - or any other form of publicity material. However it was not Paul Standell’s ‘Freddie’ that delivered the knockout performance, but the very impressive Nicola Foxfield as ‘Christine’. Standell’s acting was excellent but his limited vocal range struggled with the lower notes. Of the regulars Mike Martin once again turned in a good performance and the always dependable Claire Kingshott was good value, though criminally underused.
Solid performances and imaginative staging can’t conceal the basic fundamental flaws of ‘Seconds Out!’, which sadly are the script and the songs. Okay, the songs are okay if a little bland and predictable which is not help by the limited accompaniment - a digital piano and an electronic drum kit that sounds like Kraftwerk circa 1980. If a full band was not possible then why not use backing tracks or just the piano? Again, it’s a half and half compromise which doesn’t really work.
This leaves the script. Although one appreciates the hard work Williams has put into his book, it feels very much that he finished his first draft and thought “that will do”. The story is weak and muddled, characters are introduced, not developed then disappear for no apparent reason and the lead characterisations are singular dimensional stereotypes with no apparent physiological plausibility. The work feels unpolished and unprepared, it feel like it needed a collaborator to hone Williams ideas into a stronger more functioning narrative. The strongest plot line - the post war rise to fame, and the potential rigged world title contest was relegated a small section of the second half, which in the hands of a more adept writer could form the basis of a good production.
Nothing exposes these weaknesses more is the shows climax. Well, to be honest there isn’t one - it just ends. There could have been a big-fight song, from both contenders point of view ( there wasn’t even an opponent in the “World Championship” bout!) climaxing in a big rousing “We are the Champions” type anthem. Instead there just another over long song which sounds like all the rest, a kiss for ‘Freddie’, then curtain. Oh.
Nevertheless Williams should be commended for his effort if nothing more. It must have taken a lot of hard work to create a show from scratch, and it’s very easy for lazy critics to pick at its faults. It is what it is - the realisation of the author’s dream and little else.