Somewhere, over the West End

Fingers crossed at the Churchill Theatre, Bromley; if all goes well, `Jekyll' could be a monster. W Stephen Gilbert goes behind the scenes, and below, David Benedict looks at the musicals that fell at the first

It's not every week you see a musical that begins and ends with a funeral, features a chorus of Bedlam inmates and a very nasty sexual assault and has as its hero a man in the grip of schizophrenia. You need to go to Bromley to savour this unusual experience. Then it tours. Provided large numbers of theatregoers do not stagger home vowing to stick to gardening in future, the West End will play host to the spectacle later this year or early next.

Those gardeners might well have expected a show called Jekyll to focus on the garden designer Gertrude of that ilk. It is an odd aspect of a confounding show that the central theme of duality and split personality is so ruthlessly excised from a title that instead follows the single- word convention for musical dramatisations.

Jekyll's creators, Tony Rees and Gary Young, entered it for a competition launched by the short-lived New Musicals Alliance at which it was noticed by Alliance trustee Patricia Macnaughton. She was well placed to help, having set up in 1990 a company, Atlantic Overtures, to develop musicals. "I became interested in the show," she says "and my personal opinion was endorsed by one or two of the leading producers in the country. We took over the show, developed it further and started talking to producers. The bunch who showed the most interest were Apollo Leisure."

Apollo Leisure is a wide-ranging organisation, both owning venues and backing projects. Adrian Leggett is the executive representing the company interest. "Patricia's been in the business a long time and she's a well- respected lady," he says. "She came to us with Jekyll about 18 months ago with the creative team almost all in place. We listened to the music and read the book and in December '94 we did a little sing-through at the Prince of Wales Theatre, using half a dozen artists and a piano with the director reading the book.

"We invited some close friends and business associates. That went down well and we got good comments from people like Baz [Bamigboye] of the Daily Mail, "so we decided to take it to the next stage and find a producing house."

Enter the Churchill Theatre, Bromley, a venue owned and supported by the local council but managed for the past 12 months by the Theatre of Comedy.

Patricia Macnaughton's creative team is headed by director Stephen Rayne. "He is not a well-known West End name," says Macnaughton, "but he has worked a great deal in the past with Trevor Nunn and also in opera and we felt that he had both the directing and the musical experience to handle this. We invited to the presentation a strong designer with Scottish connections, Robin Don. He went off bubbling, `Oh, I see it, I see it.' " The basic set Don fashioned is familiar enough, a generalised, split-level arc of amphitheatre that converts to anything. Into this, however, flies Jekyll's lab, a quite beautiful and evocative construct.

After last week's Bromley opening, Adrian Leggett was well pleased with Don's work: "The people I was sitting near were oooing and aahing. Mention Peter Mumford, too, whose lighting creates a wonderful atmosphere. But," he concedes unbidden, "you can't sell a show on scenery."

And the whole Bromley exercise is designed to make up whatever shortfall there may be between Jekyll and a show you can sell. Ahead of the opening, the shrewd Macnaughton was keeping her options open. "It is a show we would like to take into the West End," she emphasised. "But we may find at the end of the day that it is a very strong touring show. But it is being developed absolutely to West End standard.

"The ideal thing to do, if we feel comfortable when it's on its feet in the theatre, is to invite some West End owners to see it and discuss whether a suitable theatre would be available. That might then mean quite soon. Or we might have to say, `OK, guys, we either try and extend the tour or we lay it off for a certain period.' "

After the opening, I asked whether she felt comfortable enough to summons the owners. "Not yet," she accepted. "I think in the next couple of weeks we'll know what it is we want. They've got a lot of playing in to do."

The problems of a fledgling musical can lie deep and defy rational analysis. For a Sondheim lover like me, the shows that appeal most are those that set themselves tests to overcome rather than taking every easy and ingratiating option. Before Jekyll opened, however, both Leggett and Macnaughton had cited Sondheim as the archetypal artist who inspires admiration but keeps bums off seats. "It's a difficult world," notes the former "where artistically you may love something but commercially you know it doesn't stand a chance. Audiences in general don't like something that's too clever for them. Like City of Angels. It had the best reviews in the world but it turned them off."

While it is true that the Bromley first-nighters sat in the silence of concentration rather than indifference, the concern for Jekyll must be that its darkness will deter the coach parties. And its star Dave Willetts - a fine singer and a decent actor but hardly a charismatic stage presence - is the only name with marquee value.

Adrian Leggett was in high spirits just after the opening. "There's a few bits and pieces to sort but I'm very, very pleased," he cried. "After seeing a piece you can always tell if it's got a heart, and this has definitely got a heart."

So I taxed him on Jekyll's dark qualities. The irony is that, having unaccountably missed The Fields of Ambrosia, a musical whose morbidity kept the town away in droves, I was most reminded of Sweeney Todd by ... um ... Stephen Sondheim.

"If I'm honest with you, it needs some lighter moments," says the executive producer. "It drives along at a relentless pace and it needs to give the audience a slight breather. But you have to be brave and do something different." I volunteer that the lyrics are really rather weak. "That's one of the areas in my notes to sort out. But I've got the writers here, so..."

One of the writers has told me he's heading home to Australia. "Is he?" says Leggett, "I don't think so. Not just yet." There is an unmistakable glint in his eye. WSG

n `Jekyll' plays the Churchill Theatre, Bromley (0181-460 5838) to 13 April, then tours to Oxford, Hull, Manchester and Edinburgh

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