Gillian Lacey-Solymar, Carrie Penn and Toby Huelin’s Irrepressible, whilst a compelling story seems to rehash old messages without leaving us with a sense that we should do something more about it. This show tries to show us that the press love scandals, will misreport news and treat women poorly… we’ve seen this happen in real time, so all this show tells us is that it’s been going on for longer than we might have imagined. So we really have to ask, so what? Whilst it is a lot for a Fringe show to try and answer, we might hope for a little more than just a repetition of what we already know.
Extremely carefully crafted to resemble work from the 18th and 19th centuries
Beth (Molly Lydon), a young and jaded journalist, is in the midst of researching a potential ‘gotcha’ moment to publish. When lost in the National Gallery, she comes across Emma Hamilton (Caitlyn Calfas) who takes Beth through her life story from her humble beginnings, to marrying the British ambassador to Sicily, her affair with Lord Nelson (Davide Valenti) and subsequent downfall at the hands of the press.
This musical’s book is very creative in its attempt to ingrain itself into the period in question with its book and score, closely resembling that of an epic poem that brings to mind Alfred Tennyson’s Godiva or Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. This can also be seen in the score’s use of classical instruments and romantic period stylings, as there is an attempt by Penn and Huelin to marry classical and musical theatre tropes. In this style, there is an attempt to have the characters speak to us directly and create some sort of immediacy, but this is hampered by the story within a story structure that makes use of a modern framework in order to make a more fantastical story more plausible. Except because of the modern framework, the fantastical element of time travel is needed which is a little clunky and overall unnecessary. Whilst this closely resembles a literary technique commonly used during the period in which this musical is set, it doesn’t quite translate to the stage well.
By using a modern framework, the show patronises us a little. Firstly, the opening number is a little confusing and lyrically simplistic in the ‘the press are evil’ kind of messaging that we quickly recognise throughout the rest of the show without much need for in-depth analysis, but this extra little song from the start makes it seem like the creative team don’t trust us to find the central message for ourselves and think that we need to be spoon-fed this caricature in order to understand this musical. The ‘lessons from the past’ trope, just feels unnecessary. We don’t need the character of Beth to explain the show to us, Emma break the 4th wall and tell us directly not to judge her by our modern standards. In fact, removing Beth entirely would make the musical a lot slicker than it is. Because then we can make our own connections and the time spent in the modern era could be used better on developing Emma Hamilton’s story.
Calfas is a simply astonishing actress and singer. She performs all of these intensely emotional songs where she really showcases her vocal strength and ability. At every turn she attempts to bridge the divide between us and her in order to make the story of Emma Hamilton stick in our minds.
Because of the story within a story framework, we lose some of the immediacy that is created from Emma’s direct speech, but just doesn’t reach us. Irrepressible is a strong musical, and it’s clear from this book and score that it has been extremely carefully crafted to resemble work from the 18th and 19th centuries. It just needs a little re-working to become a musical that we can learn from and enjoy at the same time.