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Love's Labours Lost (the musical) - Hackney Empire

Updated: Nov 24, 2021

​There is always a disparity between the reality on the ground and people’s aspirations. Love’s Labour’s Lost, a musical adaptation of the Shakespeare play of the same name, explores this concept reasonably well, with Don Armado (a suitably extravagant and boisterous Johan Munir) trying to woo Jaquenetta (Sherelle Kelleher) in a delightful musical number. There are 27 musical numbers in all, in a 90-minute single-act show, presented as the annual Royal Academy of Music Postgraduate Musical Theatre full-blown show prior to graduation. A summer showcase, if you will.

While they would ordinarily use their in-house theatre on their Marylebone Road premises, it is being renovated as part of a campus-wide multi-million pound refurbishment. So this time around, the summer showcase went across to the Hackney Empire. Judging by the threadbare carpet in the stalls, it is in need of some significant restoration itself. I do not venture into Hackney very often, not having much business there, and the town centre (let alone anywhere else in Hackney) remains difficult to get to, even with the London Overground service, which was almost dangerously overcrowded both to and from Hackney Central. On a Saturday. Goodness knows how overcrowded it must be during the working week. As for taking the bus – well, if I wanted to spend a week in transit I would prefer to save up and fork out to be on a cruise.

This being my first ever visit to the Hackney Empire itself, I found the staff very warm and friendly, not an experience universally shared. I am led to believe that on the Sunday during this four-day run of student performances, a particularly abrasive member of staff was manning the box office, taking an unpleasant and sarcastic tone with patrons. But I seemed to have struck lucky: when buying a glass of prosecco from the bar, they let me have the rest of the bottle as its contents wouldn’t quite fit into the prescribed glass size. It was, I estimate, very nearly two glasses for the price of one.

The 2017 Musical Theatre Company and Band, as the glossy programme states is their collective name, were performing even before the performance. (They weren’t always glossy programmes: in previous years they were clearly ones put together using MS Word and whacked through a monochrome printer in the office.) Chart music seemed to be in vogue on a smaller stage set up near the bar at the rear of the stalls, with only piano accompaniment. Among the songs performed were ‘Walking in Memphis’, made famous by either Marc Cohn or Cher, or both if you are so inclined, and ‘I Want It That Way’, a Backstreet Boys tune.

There is nothing to be achieved in detailing what goes on in this musical adaptation of Love’s Labour’s Lost. For that you may read any synopsis of the Shakespeare play. Or even just read the Shakespeare play. That seems to me to be the biggest problem. At least when West Side Story was derived from Romeo and Juliet, some pains were taken to ensure the right amount of changes from the older story, such that it is unmistakably that older story, but set in more relatively contemporary times.

All the writers of this version of Love’s Labour’s Lost seem to have done is transport the show to the United States but keep all the characters the same. The whole thing thus becomes rather bizarre. What part of the United States ever had a King (Benjamin Forehlich)? Aside from Elvis Presley, I mean, and this show never goes anywhere near his style of music. I daresay it might have been beneficial if it did; it might have jazzed things up a little. By ‘a little’, I mean a lot. Instead, the audience is subjected to ‘Labour of Love’, blank verse sung in the style of The Wanted. (Yes, I Googled ‘boy band’, not wanting to continue using The Beach Boys as a vocal harmony group reference, particularly as that group has not been top of the Billboard chart since 1988, and probably never will be number one ever again.)

Anyway, the humour was there, and this being a fresh-faced and up-for-it company, who have just spent close to a year of their lives being drilled and educated and trained and choreographed (etc, etc) in all things musical theatre, they certainly gave it some welly. But the modern-day setting for such an old story meant it all ended rather lazily, plot-wise, even by musical theatre standards.

Three stars

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