Review by Raphael Kohn
In a tiny, 40-seat pub theatre in Clapham, sits a small, black stage. On it sits one armchair, two small chairs, one table, and a piano. Can this space be filled with 65 minutes of enjoyable theatre? Often, Oh Yes It Can!
Oh Yes I Am! follows Hector Hanley, a former actor who had big dreams of performing at the RSC. Despite such dreams, his career consisted of a few understudy roles, followed by a life as a pantomime dame alongside his friend, and love interest, Dicky, which he reflects on from his retirement home, where he now lives out his days as dementia takes hold and reduces his cognition.
With a framing device of a retirement home often returning to remind us of the present, Oh Yes I Am! explores Hector’s story starting from the end, with him struggling with dementia. It’s a bittersweet way to tell the story, and the show is all the better for it. Interspersed with scenes of Hector as a young actor, interacting with fellow actors, and with family, are scenes of him with his carers, doctors and loved ones in the present day, bringing the much-needed darkness to the plot which otherwise risks being overwhelmed by sweetness.
As for sweetness, there is much to go around. Oh Yes I Am! at times drowns out the more serious notes of the show with saccharine sentimentalism, leaning too heavily on his dreams. Such sweetness, without enough substance to underpin it, leaves the show like a cup of lukewarm mulled wine by a fading fire – often lacking the depth and spice to give it more than one dimension.
Featuring a cast of only two, this really does feel like tiny, intimate fringe theatre. Kevin West’s portrayal of Hector is sensitive and delightful, but it is Sam Denia’s portrayal of every single other character that truly stood out, performing so many parts that I completely lost count. Giving us a world tour of accents, each delivered impressively well, Denia darts on and off the stage, playing Dicky, the carers, Hector’s dad and more. Denia delivers a world-class performance, showcasing his talent and range. The two have a great dynamic and clearly enjoy making theatre together; they are a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately, this came apart slightly during some of the musical numbers, which were occasionally out of tune.
A part of me wishes this was closer to a play with songs, and less a full stage musical. The musical numbers that hit hardest were the ones that were actually diegetic, where the characters themselves were singing. For example, a scene in which Peter Pan is re-enacted onstage becomes a real treat, and the stage lights up with the warmth of the storytelling. It was moments like this that truly stood out. It was a shame, therefore, that the other musical numbers didn’t quite live up to that standard. Many felt out of place, and didn’t serve to advance the story or detail the characters’ emotions.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this show – far from it, I had a rather lovely time at Oh Yes I Am!. I can see a great future for this fringe show, should it evolve and develop further to bring more than its current offering. For now, it was an enjoyable hour, performed well by its cast of two, but with potential that outweighs its performance.
Oh Yes I Am! - The Panto Dame Musical plays at the Bread & Roses Theatre until November 26th. Tickets from https://www.breadandrosestheatre.co.uk/