The Edinburgh Fringe is no stranger to controversy, but this year the most controversial shows all seem to be musicals. Van Badham and Jonny Berliner’s Cash In Christ! is a mock-evangelical rally. Pastors Bob and Fanny Comfort explain how Jesus wants us to become rich so we can a) smite the infidels more forcefully and b) give hefty chunks of that wealth to the Comforts. Badham’s writing shows its usual zestily sharp tongue but also the lack of focus that can beset her work.
This year boasts not one but two Tony Blair musicals. Tony! has the slightly jazzier title and a piece of casting that inadvertently generated the funniest moment of my day. A couple of old ladies greeted the show’s opening speech with cries of “We can’t hear you!” The absence of projection seems to be hereditary: the actor, Edward Duncan Smith, is the son of the former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith.
The show is efficient but toothless, with no real chronology, stock characters and a purely homophobic portrayal of Peter Mandelson.
Far sharper is Jihad: The Musical, which treads a fine line deftly. It satirises extreme Islam’s oppression of women, gay people etc without criticising the religion. For balance there’s an indictment of American media values too. Foxy, a female news reporter, stumbles on the story of young Sayid, too dim to realise he is being groomed as a suicide bomber.
It includes lines such as Sayid fretting about his poor ability at target practice, “I couldn’t hit the broadside of a Bamiyan Buddha”, and cell leader Hussein flattering his niqab-clad comrade with “Have you lost weight? Who can say?” But its scenic structure is too bitty – set-up, number, blackout; set-up, number, blackout – and the performance style is a rather self-satisfied cartooning.
In many ways, I was fondest of the prolific Rikki Beadle-Blair’s jukebox musical Stonewall. It does not address its subject square-on, but rather weaves an imagined human-interest tale among a number of gay guys and drag queens in 1969 New York, showing the systemic hassle that led to the Stonewall riots. It is rather at sea in the large Pleasance One space, and has too early a slot at teatime; it needs a more lubricated and vocal mid-to-late-evening audience, but those hours on the Fringe are increasingly monopolised by comedy. Its songs are neither original nor performed live: scenes are punctuated by sequences of lip-sync-ing to 1960s girl-group songs, principally from those champions of teen romantic ambivalence The Shangri-Las. But it has heart, commitment and exuberance to carry it over virtually all its shortcomings.
The laurel must go to Failed States. Desmond O’Connor and Andrew Taylor’s musical was lauded on its premiere last autumn in one of London’s most obscure fringe theatres, and deserves a far wider audience. This is, incredibly, a musical indictment of Britain’s anti-terrorist laws. The protagonist Joseph, an American trading in the Middle East, is detained without charge on his return to London and interrogated to the point of his own madness and his family’s disintegration. Its book and songs alike are ambitious and largely achieve their goals in a 70-minute show that ranges from outrage to satire to bittersweet romance, with a discreet Kafka motif for good measure. It is an extraordinary rendition – pun fully intended.