John Paul Jones

Jean Paul Jones is an eighteenth-century US naval commander with Scottish roots; and this is the musical of his life. It’s fundamental flaw is that it hasn’t decided if it’s a musical or a modern opera. The whole production has the taint of talented and intelligent people trying to be populist but not entirely comfortable with dumbing down.A high-brow attempt to be subtle in plot and historically complete in its biography leaves the book too confused and thematically incoherent to be a satisfying musical. Meanwhile, the patronising and undramatic framing device tenuously involving Robert Burns removes deeper meaning from the genuinely interesting story of Jones. Tangentially-related quotations from Burns and Shakespeare are curiously mixed in with silly jokes about having lots of sex and how Benjamin Franklin is a bit of a looser.The solo roles are similarly confused as to the genre they’re working in. Backed by the Consort of Voices and members of the SCO, one can forgive the inappropriately operatic singing of Douglas Nairen - and in fact he’s got fantastic voice. The Consort were obviously having a great time, especially portraying the Oklahoma-style peasants in various taverns, but undoubtedly bring a whiff of the ecclesiastical recital to the production. Helen Wilding was bang on the music theatre money as Delia, the saucy but simple French Duchess.Wagstaff’s musical style is often described as ‘patchwork,’ leading one to expect something much more eclectic than the catchy blend of Parry’s Jerusalem and Celtic rock that forms the basic sound here; the relatively unified sound leaves me in no doubt that Wagstaff is a talented popular composer. Gorgeous orchestral arrangements conjure the various settings very effectively, but there is an over-reliance on physical musical effect in the attempt to crowbar significance into the duller scenes. The music is great fun and its Disney-aesthetic is exactly what a West End musical needs, it’s just its powers are used for evil rather than good, almost lulling the audience into a false sense of entertainment where the book is lacking.So, will John Paul Jones turn into a commercial musical or an Arts-Council opera? The producers say they plan to take it to the West End, so expect future productions to have a much more focused story.

Reviews by James T. Harding

Pleasance Courtyard

Creatives

★★
Bedlam Theatre

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★★★★★

The Blurb

John Paul Jones tells the incredible true story of the son of a Scottish gardener who became a hero of the American Revolution as the “father of the American navy”. In it, Jones defeats the British against incredible odds at the Battle of Flamborough Head, is knighted by the King of France, fights for Catherine the Great in a war against the Turkish Empire and dies amid the tumult of the French Revolution. It is a tale of love and loss, triumph and tragedy, full of melodic, memorable songs and engaging lyrics.

In the midst of battle, when all seemed lost, Jones uttered his famous cry “"I have not yet begun to fight!"”, a phrase which echoes down the ages and is quoted to this day.