Theatre Review: High Fidelity (Turbine Theatre, London) ★★★1/2

A musical about a spoilt white guy who gets endless chances to learn life’s lessons may not be the show the world needs right now, but the Turbine Theatre’s UK Premiere of High Fidelity (the musical) makes it work through a combination of diverse casting and a talented ensemble.

This is the tale of Rob, a sad Peter Pan of a man refusing to grow up. He runs a snobbish record store and acts like… well, let’s just say if this was set in 2019 he’d be one of those angry-white-guys whining all over Twitter. When his girlfriend, Laura, leaves him he starts to fall apart and maybe even learn a thing or two.

High Fidelity (based on 2000 film which was based on Nick Hornby’s original 1995 novel) was a notorious Broadway flop that only ran for 31 performances. To be honest it’s not hard to see why. As an adaptation of an adaptation it “isn’t offering me anything new here,” as the character Rob would say.

But London has a knack for polishing up Broadway flops and unearthing little gems. Producer Paul Taylor-Mills has been responsible for some of the best Off-West-End musicals over the last decade, and he’s worked his magic once more on High Fidelity.

To start with, the action has been relocated back to London (in line with the novel). While that makes for some awkward rhymes, it does restore some of the book’s charms. We’re still left with a story of white male privilege, but this is off-set with a wildly diverse cast. It’s not 100% successful. All the male characters are still played by white actors which seems odd in retrospect (although one of them is Robert Tripolino “Otter-Jesus” so things could be worse).

There are some fun tunes to enjoy along the way (‘Desert Island Top 5 Break Ups’ has always been a personal favourite of mine – Mario Cantone has a great cover version), it’s just a shame they’re saddled with ‘00s rock arrangements making them blend into one.

And this is all sounding like I didn’t like the show – but I did – and that’s the power of good casting! Oliver Ormson manages to take Rob, a pretty unlikable character, and give him enough appeal so that you understand why these women dated him and why he might even have a chance with Laura (Shanay Holmes). Holmes meanwhile takes the thinly written character of Laura and gives her an inner life. Eleanor Kane stood out from the strong ensemble playing a variety of roles (from Rob’s lesbian ex to a cute singer-songwriter Marie). Bobbie Little also shines as Liz (Rob and Laura’s mutual friend), getting to be an audience surrogate shouting at Rob just like we would like to.

I’m pretty sure the show doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test and its token queer character (Rob’s ex who is now gay) plays more like a throwback 90s joke. Rob’s journey feels retrograde in the current climate (man-baby white guy – surrounded by disposable women – becomes less of a dick, gets forgiven and comes out on the top) but it’s no worse than most films from the ‘90s.

In the end you’ve got an enjoyable piece of musical theatre that succeeds on the strength of its cast. You might have to gloss over some aspects, but ultimately it’s a great production of a middling curio of a show – which, for a musical theatre geek like me, is just fine.

High Fidelity plays at the Turbine Theatre, London until 7th Dec 2019.

Photos by Mark Senior

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