The opening few bars of Failed States brilliantly foreshadows the musical to follow. A combination of the British and American national anthem displays both harmony and dissonance - succinctly summarising the special relationship our countries enjoy.
Andrew Taylor and Desmond O'Connor's musical is not just about terrorism, but also about our reaction to it. Set in a London both before and after the 7/7 attacks, the story follows Joseph (Guy Lewis), an American ex-pat air conditioning salesman who gets embroiled in a joint MI5/CIA investigation on questionably thin evidence. His girlfriend, Anya (Joanna Heap) is the daughter of Massoud (Fanos Xenofos) a naturalised British citizen born in Iran, and most defiantly patriotic. His love of Britain is such that he ultimately rejects his future son-in-law in favour of his adopted country, despite a lack of proof.
Taylor's sharply observed script has clear parallels with Kafka's The Trial, and highlights that the American response to terrorism - and their influence over Britain - has dangerous consequences for our civil liberties. A beautifully played scene between CIA agent William (Steve McNeil) and MI5 agent Frank (Marcus Ellard) reminds us that, for Britain at least, terrorism is a reality we have been dealing with for decades, not just something you should have a knee-jerk reaction to.
O'Connor's lyrics and score are sublime. Staccato rhythms throughout relentlessly underpin a style that is somewhere between Sondheim and Laurence O'Keefe. It's appropriately aggressive for the subject matter, but you'll still come out of the theatre with the melodies bouncing around in your head. This is an intelligent musical that deliberately asks questions, challenges and pokes into uncomfortable areas, but at the same time resists the temptation to descend into an incoherent polemic.
It's all delivered by a professional cast who make use of the slightly awkward cabaret space well - confidently escaping the restraints of the small stage and occasionally delivering dialogue across sections of the audience. Most of the actors also pick up an instrument to compliment the team of three musicians and build a rich tapestry of sound - unusual for a Fringe musical, budget realities being what they are. Heather Weir's exceptional arrangements make the best use of this talented bunch.
By the close, when the full company provided an impressive finale called 'Picking Up Glass', I felt I had learnt something without being preached at; but most of all I had been entertained.