Musicals bring me out in a rash. I hate them with a deep, profound, physical hatred. Actually, that’s not quite true. I only hate bad, clichéd, sentimental musicals. But I’ve seen dozens of the damn things and only three which weren’t awful. Having just seen Crab House, I’m willing to add a fourth.
Crab House is like a deranged hybrid of Sweeney Todd and Little Shop of Horrors – which are, incidentally, two of the three. The plot is as wildly improbable as you could hope. It’s set in prohibition-era New York, where struggling writer Tim and his domineering partner Ruth have just settled down. Leaving Illinois in with hopes of recession-busting entrepreneurship, they’ve bought up a failing seafood restaurant, which continues to fail despite doubling as a speakeasy. But after a freak accident, the crabs and the profits mysteriously begin to grow.
Crab House turns its small cast and budget into one of its strengths. The only piece of set is also the only instrument; with its lid down, the pianist’s baby grand also serves as the Crab House cocktail bar. It’s a nice bending of the fourth wall, which becomes even nicer halfway through the show when Tim hears the piano and notices the pianist. ‘Who’s this guy?’ he asks. Ruth identifies him as ‘Clyde, our new Australian barman,’ and from this point onwards he is, pouring drinks and providing a sardonic commentary on the action as it unfurls. The music isn’t hugely original – the vocal melodies in particular are often rather derivative – but the score is jaunty and enjoyable, with a couple of memorable standouts. The music is at its best when it leans closest to the alternative cabaret aesthetic that Crab House seems to be aiming for. There are some real flashes of brilliance; “Repetition” has a distinctly macabre Dresden Dolls vibe and “The Darkness of the Tank” sent shivers down my spine. The lyrics are frequently very funny; ‘all we need are customers,’ sings Ruth, ‘but all we have are sad-looking malnourished crustaceans’ - top stuff.
There were, however, a few technical issues; the piano is mic’ed up too loudly and frequently drowns out the singing. With only a piano as accompaniment audibility shouldn’t really be a problem. It was here, which was slightly disappointing. Also, at the risk of revealing a serious pedantic streak, I’ve got to mention that the plotline isn’t entirely coherent. For example, why do larger crabs equal sure-fire business success? There are other issues, but it’s hard to explain them without giving away too much – one crucial murder occurs near the end of the play without any convincing motivation. These quibbles aside, Crab House is a great show and almost certain to win you over – whatever your views on musicals or seafood might be.