Eugenius: A Review

New British musicals are a rare breed and, in comparison to the dozen or so Broadway hits over the last couple of years, we’re starting to let the side down. While I’ve always been a fan of Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera, I’ve been longing for something fresher and a little less traditional to hit the West End, so when I heard about Eugenius, I promptly booked my ticket.

The Other Palace, the show’s home for its run, isn’t a large space but they make good use of what they do have, with a three-tiered stage that transforms into several minimalist sets, all decorated with splashes of paint to look like a galaxy. Between the stars and the fairy lights strung from the ceiling, the whole auditorium looks rather magical, the perfect location for a show that bends the rules of logic like Eugenius does.

The show itself is a love letter to the eighties. If you found yourself watching Stranger Things and picking out all the pop culture references, then you’ll be pleased to know you can do the exact same thing here. My bet is that you could see the show at least five times and still find a new reference you hadn’t caught before. Story-wise, Eugenius is about your typical high school nerd who writes comic books, but when Eugene’s story gets picked up to be turned into a movie, fiction starts to bleed into reality and it starts to look like the dreams that inspired Eugene’s comics aren’t really just dreams at all. It’s a case of suspending disbelief at times, and there are a couple of loose ends that never get tied up, but it’s a unique plot that is certainly endearing.

You absolutely cannot fault the cast of this show. They’re all incredible but Laura Baldwin undeniably steals the show as Janey, one of Eugene’s friends. Her voice is something out of this world and Baldwin plays a wonderful mix of nerdy and determined that reminded me of Alyson Hannigan’s Willow in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I would say she gets some of the best songs in the show to sing, but this is a show with exclusively good songs. At least half the audience were humming various parts of the soundtrack on the way out, and with good reason! The score is catchy, the lyrics clever and the choreography veritably infectious.

My major issue with the show is that it doesn’t know which 80s tropes to leave behind. The principal cast features only two women, one being Janey and the other being a double part of Super Hot Lady, the woman from Eugene’s comic book, and the actress who plays her in the film. Yes, you read that right. Super Hot Lady. Her song, while melodically catchy, is full of sexual references and her costume makes it very clear that she’s the fantasy ideal of teenage boys from the 80s. Taking this trope and subverting it might have worked, but failing to do so just leaves lingering uncomfortable moments.

Janey falls into the trap that so many women in musical theatre do: she is there to further the storyline of a man, and do nothing for herself. She’s in love with Eugene and stuck in the ‘friend zone’, by her own admission, and is the one responsible for getting his comic book to Hollywood. It’s fair to say she gains a little confidence in herself by the end of act 2, but considering she’s the only major female character who isn’t called Super Hot Lady, one can, quite reasonably, expect more.

Unfortunately the show’s (attempts at) queer representation come straight out of the 80s, too. We’re offered a camp stereotype who seems to have no other levels, and a gay-coded villain, which comes with a dire and dangerous filmic history of making the LGBTQ+ characters evil and then killing them off. It’s disappointing, but most musical theatre queer representation tends to be.

By merit of production, this is a great show. The music will stick with you, and you really will want to see it again, as the show’s tag line promises. But prepare yourself for a trip back to 80s warts and all. The Lycra, the now iconic films, but also the sexism and homophobia. If you can put aside your politics, I really do recommend it. I just felt the need to donate to some women’s rights organisations on behalf of the show when I left…

 

Eugenius is playing at The Other Palace until March 3rd