According to its composer, The Route to Happiness is deliberately designed as a chamber musical for low-budget production in fringe venues. This is briskly refreshing compared to those shiny-faced student directors who are convinced their “cutting edge” new musical over a ratty pub in Zone 4 is immediately ready for a £70-a-seat transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue.

You have to applaud the initiative as much as the production: prolific young producer Katie Lipson, who recently had her first West End breakthrough with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, has collaborated with the Landor’s tireless director Rob McWhir in a month-long season of new musical writing called “From Page to Stage”: most are one-nighters but The Route to Happinessoccupies a mid-festival week to promote the writer who’s furthest along his particular route, Alexander Bermange.

Bermange is an enigma. His complex light-operatic love-triangle Thirteen Days set around the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closing work in last year’s hip Grimeborn opera festival at the Arcola, he writes comic songs for Radio 4, he has a fascination with gothic fairy tales, and he claims affinity with traditional musical theatre. He’s clearly a composer of great technical skill, and a lyricist who enjoys the complexity of rhyming couplets in any situation, but I wonder whether his intellectual approach to the music, writing from the head rather than the heart, and his commitment to the through-sung format together limit his opportunity to knock out a popular West End show.

We start with three rejections: thrusting yuppie Marcus loses his job, pretty-but-talentless wannabe and the very opposite of a “triple threat” Trinity fails yet another audition, and lovelorn Lorna is dumped. They sing, separately, about their disappointments and hopes for forty minutes before any character meets another, then Marcus becomes Trinity’s agent and Lorna’s lover and with a nod to Bermange’s fondness for the brothers Grimm: as soon as everyone gets what they wish for, they don’t want it and it all falls apart again.

The singing is impressive – Niall Sheehy as Marcus having the hardest task with some discordant notes to bridge between the girls’ melody lines: Bermange claims in a programme note to have written a different musical style for each of his three characters, but the differentiation felt too subtle. Each actor inhabits the persona with conviction, Shona White particularly convincing as a Bridget-Jones-esque woman disillusioned with the men in her life, Cassidy Janson capturing the vapid desperation of the would-be starlet with finesse; you could see the weariness behind the bright lipsticked facade.

Thanks to Lipson’s talent for publicity, almost everyone in the audience seemed to have a notebook and on the platform at Clapham there was a quorum for a post-mortem: Ruth Leon, veteran theatre commentator and London correspondent for Playbill, Michael Darton, editor ofTheatre & Performance magazine, Australian blogger Paul in London and me. We all felt the production had the same three flaws: that the parabolic arc of the plot was obvious within the first ten minutes, that all of the songs felt largely the same, and that the characters were too thinly drawn to elicit any sympathy or interest in their outcomes.

None of this is irreparable, and the point of this staging is to derive feedback: I’d like to see an opened-out version of the show in which more of the characterization and plot is carried by dialogue, and the songs given their chance with a bit more air between them.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 20th February 2013
Image © Francis Loney

One Stop ArtsOriginally published on One Stop Arts.