Review by Daz Gale
While the main space of The Other Palace isn’t home to a musical for once, they continue their pledge to promote new musical theatre by giving their Studio space to the new musical Trompe L’Oeil. Combining cabaret, queer theatre, and politics, it promises to give a unique and unusual take on events from recent years, milking the absurdity of it all in a theatrical explosion. But would this production be able to come up Trumps?
Trompe L’Oeil premiered off-Broadway in 2021 and has since had a production in Paris and a London fringe run last year. Featuring Trump and Putin as characters, it charts Donald Trump’s seemingly far-fetched bid to become President of the United States (We all know how that turned out) and the surreal events that followed, alongside a Queer love story as two people fall in love and attempt to find their place in a mad, ever-changing world.
Written by Henry Parkman Biggs, the book tends to be a bit all over the place in an attempt to cram so much into a short time. While it is very much in keeping of the chaotic nature of the time, the consistent narrative is at times hard to follow and could use with a bit of tweaking. There are also the dangers of trying to effectively parody a man like Trump who himself is already a parody, admittedly a very dangerous one, as well as how uncomfortable it may be to laugh at anything involving Putin as his atrocities are still occurring. It very much feels like a show that will divide opinion as extremely contrasting reactions in the audience proved, but its surrealism is very much intended – if its mission was to create something like you’ve never seen before, this production could be deemed a success. In my personal opinion, I fell somewhere in the middle, laughing out loud regularly and loving certain moments while not enjoying others as much, There is no denying the potential of the show though.
Henry has also created the music and lyrics which are a mixed affair. Fusing different genres together, sonically it creates a versatile, surprising, and exciting mix of songs. Musical highlights included the incredibly catchy ‘Couscous’ and the unexpectedly beautiful ‘Hey Diddle Aye’. Other musical numbers fare less successfully included a wholly unnecessary Act 2 opener ‘Putin On The Ritz’ (it’s exactly what you think it is) and an underwhelming finale number ‘Better Together’ which fairly clearly failed to match the caliber of the majority of the shows previous numbers, disappointingly leaving the show on an unsatisfyingly flat number.
“Trompe l’oeil” is defined as a design intended to create a visual illusion. To that end, Henry has hidden illusions in the music and lyrics of his songs. Secret messages and deliberate references to contrasting songs are all present and explained in the programme – many of which passed me by completely. The way this is done impresses immeasurably and creates a completely different level to the show which is admirable in itself. If you are not looking out for these though, some of the lyrics in certain songs tend to be jarring with unnatural and clunky rhymes littered among them, so perhaps a happy medium can be found going forward.
Blair Anderson’s fun direction makes the best use of the tiny studio space at The Other Palace, working with Justin Williams’ pleasingly pink set design and having cast members climb and bounce across its multiple levels. The fact this is done on an incredibly small stage amazes me and allows for some inventive ways to bring some of the weirder elements of the story to life. His choreography is even better, at times deceptively making the stage feel so much bigger than it is and using the casts talents perfectly with one particularly dance-heavy number early on proving particularly impressive.
One of the stronger elements of Trompe L’Oeil is its wonderful cast. Emer Dineen amps up the ridiculous factor as much as possible for an exaggerated Trump and it works fantastically. Alex Wadham delights with a heartfelt and hilarious RIP while Olivia Saunders gets a standout moment with her big musical number ‘Blanke Verse’, displaying fabulous comic timing. The standout performance goes to Dominic Booth for his take on Demi, showing an enormous versatility with sometimes over-the-top moments and sometimes quieter, more tender moments. As Demi struggles to let the truth be revealed, Dominic displays these complexities with sensitivity in a performance that threatens to shift the tone from the remainder of the show, but refreshingly so.
Trompe L’Oeil is a weird one to tackle. Wacky in its nature, you are either going to love it or hate it – and that’s the point. I found myself experiencing both feelings at times throughout, never quite sure where I or this review was going to land. Ultimately, I settled on the fact that there is a lot going for this musical with some great musical moments and a sensational cast. If they can tweak some of the bits that didn’t land as successfully and settle on a tone (not to mention changing that final musical number), this show has the potential to Trump all others in its category. Are there even any other shows in this category? While its premise may be unique, it is too uneven in its current format. Still, I wait with interest to see what comes next for this show and have no doubt that they can make Trompe L’Oeil great again.
Trompe L’Oeil plays at The Other Palace Studio until 18th October, Tickets from https://theotherpalace.co.uk/
Photos by Danny Kaan