The most ambitious production ever attempted by United Players is a sweeping melodrama set in mid-18th century England. Bernard Cuffling directs a cast of 24 performers, many of them largely inexperienced. And despite some awkward transitions and wonky accents, the show is hugely entertaining.
We move from rural Gloucestershire to London and back in a plot driven by the exceedingly evil Otis Gardiner (an excellent Tariq Leslie), who pretends to be a do-gooder taking unwanted infants to the Coram foundling hospital where they will be raised with care. In reality he rips off the poor mothers and leaves the babies to die, aided by his reluctant, damaged son Meshak (Missy Cross, in another fine performance).
Meanwhile, young Alexander Ashbrook (Spencer Wallace), who wishes only to sing, is prevented from doing so by his rich, nasty father (John Harris). Before Alex runs way from the Ashbrook estate to pursue his destiny, he makes love to young Melissa (Grace Grosvenor, yet another first-rate actor), who has a baby boy--in a pretty extraordinary birth scene--which evil Gardiner gets his evil hands on, but which Meshak saves, to be brought up in the Coram hospital.
And that’s just act one! Act two is more thrilling yet (we even meet Handel), and suffice to say that good wins out and evil gets its due. There’s a good deal more fine acting, especially from Mary Clark as Alexander’s sister and Joshua Ssettuba as another Coram boy. Kyla Gardiner does a fairly amazing job costuming the two dozen actors in convincing period garb with what was surely a very small budget,.
Cuffling has staged the play with all the actors not in a scene sitting on either side of the action, setting the scene for the audience, providing sound effects and song. One boy in the chorus sweetly sings all of Alexander’s songs as Wallace mouths them—a lovely effect—and the show ends with Handel himself conducting the entire cast in a rousing chorus of his Messiah.
Every year, United Players takes the risk of opening its season in the middle of the Fringe Festival and daring theatre-goers to try something with a little more substance. It’s not easy getting people’s attention amid all the noise of the Fringe, but once again the UP make it worth our while. Now that the Fringe is over, there’s no excuse not to see this show.