Review by Daz Gale
A cult musical has reassembled at The Turbine Theatre as Eugenius! returns to London for the first time since 2018. Following two well-received runs at The Other Palace and a cancelled West End transfer, it’s been a long time coming, but would the show be worth the wait, or is the genius only reserved for the show’s title?
Debuting in 2016 as a concert production at the London Palladium, Eugenius! tells the story of schoolboy Eugene, our unlikely hero, who captures the attention of a Hollywood executive with his comic book creation ‘Tough Man’. As he navigates relationships and his own artistic integrity, a more dangerous threat emerges as it turns out his creation might not be a work of fiction after all.
A stellar cast have been assembled for this latest iteration of the show, with Elliot Evans leading the pack as Eugene. Delivering a sweet-natured and captivating performance, he is a joy to witness and holds his own among some bigger characters. As wonderful as he is as an actor, it’s his singing which is his biggest superpower, demonstrating a remarkable range which could defeat any supervillain. Elliot’s castmates are equally impressive, with Jaina Brock-Patel displaying a sensational vocal performance as one of Eugene’s best friends and love interest, Janey. His other best friend Feris is a comic highlight thanks to James Hameed’s charismatic performance.
Maddison Firth is an undoubted highlight as Carrie/Super-Hot Lady, effortlessly stealing scenes, particularly in the second act, with Joseph Beach giving a fantastic audition for panto season with a brilliantly over-the-top portrayal of Evil Lord Hector. Lara Denning makes the most of a one-note character as Lex Hogan, and Rhys Taylor is a standout as Theo. Sadly, not all the performances hit the mark for me – Dominic Anderson suffers from the limitations of the writing of his character meaning the Arnold Schwarzenegger vibe of his Gerhard sadly falls flat.
The greatest element of Eugenius! is undoubtedly its pulsing 80s soundtrack. Written by Ben Adams (of A1 and last year’s Eurovision highlight “Give that wolf a banana” fame) and Chris Wilkins, it boasts some hugely satisfying numbers blending classic-sounding musical theatre with the sounds of the 80s, resulting in some utter earworms. Highlights include the instantly memorable ballad ‘Comic Book Kind Of Love’, the irritatingly good ‘Who’s That Guy?’ and the rousing finale ‘Go Eugenius!’. These are the kind of songs that can’t help but put a smile on your face, elevating the show and making up for some of its weaker elements.
Unfortunately, the writing of the book is nowhere near as strong as the music. The story itself, while perhaps not ground-breaking, plods along pleasantly. However, the journey to get there is where the problem lies. Characters come and go inconsistently, with even the main character Eugene having drastically reduced stage time in the second act. The dialogue itself falls flat at times, with one-liners failing to land and a smattering of musical theatre references shoehorned in to cringeworthy effect (the most obvious of these being “One day more. Another day, another destiny” for no reason whatsoever). At times, it feels like the priority in writing the show was the music, and the book was an afterthought. While it is unashamedly cheesy and gives a knowing wink in its love letter to the era it is set in, it unfortunately detracts from a show that has huge promise but never quite manages to get there.
Hannah Chissick’s direction makes the most of the Turbine Theatre stage, but there is the sense that this may be the wrong venue for Eugenius!. While the Turbine has proved itself to be a formidable force when it comes to championing new musical theatre in recent years with an incredible track record, this is a show with big aspirations and its own sense of grandeur - the small space shows up its limitations and amplifies its flaws.
Production elements are a mixed bag. Andrew Exeter’s glorious lighting design is thankfully impressive, but the set design is more limited in comparison to some of the recent productions at the same theatre. Alistair Penman’s sound design transforms the show into a rock concert at times, but sometimes drowns out the cast in doing this, and Andy Walton’s video design, while very much befitting the era, can cheapen the feel of the show at times – as do some of the costumes with Tough Man’s emblem distracting by not being secured properly. Aaron Renfree’s choreography is a production highlight, particularly in the now-iconic closing number.
Tough Man’s catchphrase states he will be tough but fair, and I hope I’ve managed to live up to that in this review. Eugenius! is a show with many strengths, but it is not invincible and sadly there are several elements at play here which could prove the kryptonite to its superpowers, where a truly impressive cast and fantastic songs are undone somewhat by a flawed book, some questionable production elements, and staging.
This is a show with big aspirations, and I believe the sky is the limit for Eugenius! if it can hone in a couple of the necessary tweaks needed to make it fly. Throughout the show, it repeats “Don’t shoot for the highs, shoot higher” and perhaps it could get there, but currently, it is struggling to leave the Earth’s atmosphere. Perhaps it may not be quite genius, but there is still plenty enough to keep people entertained and please its already devoted fanbase.
Eugenius! plays at The Turbine Theatre until 28th May. Tickets from www.theturbinetheatre.com
Photos by Pamela Raith