Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Encore of the Scorchies written by James Goss and directed by Lisa Bowerman

What's it about: A special musical episode with stunning music and lyrics by Howard Carter! There’s a new act at the New Regency Theatre, and Jago and Litefoot are about to face their grand finale.

Theatrical Fellow: Is it any great surprise that Jago is absolutely enamoured with the Scorchies and their all singing, all dancing act? The very suggestion that Jago has forgotten his friends is appalling and Litefoot refuses to believe it is the case. With these insanely entertaining puppets bringing in the crowds, Jago is the King of his own Empire again, the Maharaja of the New Regency Theatre. A well cured ham? He recognises that he has done many terrible things under the Scorchies thrall but one thing they would never force him to do is to harm his best friend, an admission which delights Litefoot no end.

Posh Professor: So much of this range puts the focus on Jago with Litefoot as his able support that it is always refreshing when they reverse those roles and allow Litefoot to take centre stage. As Litefoot points out it is not the first time they have tangled with evil dolls but he starts to wonder if he is seeing menace in these automatons because he is missing his friend so much and is looking for a way to separate him from the Scorchies. He's squared up to more impressive alien aggressors than he Scorchies and upon learning of their scheme to enslave humanity he facetiously comments that he wishes all these extraterrestrial invaders would form an orderly queue.

Standout Performance: Lisa Bowerman has an exceptional singing voice, which shouldn't come as a surprise after her skilful rendition of 'Butterflies and Cake' in the Bernice Summerfield range. Where that was Benny singing tentatively and outrageously, Encore features Ellie singing a couple of sweet and gentle songs that show off Bowerman's musical talent in a whole new light. Mind you, Christopher Benjamin is no slouch in the singing department either, delivering a handful of diverse and delightful numbers.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'They're mean and malign and they mangle my mind with malevolent musical loads, their incessant rhyming has slowly been climbing through my head til it explodes!'
'You're enslaving hundreds of people just so that a handful of you can be happy?' 'Yes, I believe it's called...' '...an Empire.'
'The adventure's nearly finished and I've hardly said a line!'

Great Ideas: Squeezing the Scorchies into the world of Jago & Litefoot seems like a perfect fit given one half of this duo is a theatrical impresario who books quirky acts for the theatre as effortlessly as breathing. If there was ever a place where this brand of intergalactic puppets belonged, it is on the stage with Mr Henry Gordon Jago stage managing. It means that the series can experiment with a musical episode (a brand of audio adventure that Big Finish indulges in scarcely, and it is all the more special when they do as a result) and bring the vocal talents of its crew to light. Whereas the original Scorchies story (still one of the most sublime pieces of madness Big Finish has ever released) opted for a dark and sugary kids entertainment show vibe, this is much more in line with the Victorian theatre of it's setting with bigger, brasher, more exaggerated numbers. 'We are the Scorchies' is a high energy number to kick start proceedings and an easy warning to the audience - if this isn't your kind of thing abandon hope all ye who enter here. One thing that both Scorchies stories manage to pull off with great aplomb is that uncomfortable feeling when something that should be playful and childish turns sinister and homicidal, these giggling puppets are both great fun and terrifyingly psychotic. Aliens from outer space, crossing the void of space and time to enslave all of mankind. Rhyming is how they bring humanity under their spell, the weapon their wield, spreading their hypnotic field. Once you sing along you'll bring along death. The Scorchies act as a Greek chorus at certain points, commenting on the action and pointing out the narrative tropes that Goss is wielding to make the audience gasp and shudder ('I must say I'm disappointed by the minions, if they were a serious challenge they would have disposed of him by now'). In a season that would really allow Quick to come into his own, it's wonderful that the opening story should feature such a deliriously insulting song about our favourite resident policeman. This is the song that comes closest to treading the boards for real and capturing the feel of those glorious old numbers that encourage full audience participation.

Audio Landscape: Pub atmosphere, giggling Scorchies, tap dancing puppets, applause, horse and carriage, church bells, fireworks.

Musical Cues: I found the musical number that propelled us into the story and absolute delight, the ever reliable and impressive Howard Carter going to town with his soundtrack of this special episode. It features the best ever rendition of the theme tune of the series (with the piano crescendo a particular delight).

Isn't it Odd: We learnt the backstory of the Scorchies in their first appearance but that isn't repeated here and there is a good chance that there is a very different crowd buying this series than there is buying the companion chronicles. And so if you are coming to the malevolent toys anew in Encore there is a good chance that you might be completely baffled by their appearance and how precisely they came to be. It's a big leap to simply ask your audience to except walking, talking, murdering playthings (The Scorchies understood that and justified their existence accordingly) just because, which is what Encore is handing you. Maybe the creative minds behind this story were hoping you would seek out their other appearance to validate their existence.

Standout Scene: Ellie's song at the climax where she gets to berate the range for not giving her a fair share of the action. Mind you, let's be fair, it isn't called Ellie, Jago & Litefoot. A wonderful climactic number that provides the piece with a stunning vocal finish. I also found the affirmation of the friendship between Jago, Litefoot & Ellie at the climax one of the most heart-warming moments the range has ever delivered. Three friends, huddling close in the cold, watching fireworks and recognising how much they care about one another.

Result: Very different from their debut story and all the smarter for it, Encore of the Scorchies sees Jago & Litefoot striking out with something very different from the norm (but in a series that is willing to experiment as much as this one I have lost track of what the norm is) which is very refreshing as we kick start the eighth series. It's apparent that a great deal of love and care has gone into this story; expressed in the buoyant dialogue, imaginative songs, engaging characterisation and dazzling production values. My only real complaint is that I loved The Scorchies so much that comparisons were inevitable and where that one went for infectious fun (and was effortlessly enjoyable for it), Encore is a much darker, more substantial affair and as a result was a little harder to warm to. The Scorchies were clearly defined in their debut story but here the psychotic puppets were a little harder to identify, perhaps because there was an attempt to turn them into actual characters rather than barmy caricatures. Whilst Christopher Benjamin shows off his considerable singing talent, Trevor Baxter gets to take the limelight as Litefoot tries to unmask the sinister operation at the New Regency Theatre and there is insubstantial participation from Ellie with Lisa Bowerman providing the best musical number because of it. I really enjoyed the meta commentary on the range and the story, Goss daring to have his characters criticise his efforts in the same way that Joss Whedon would at his best.  Will Jago be turned into sawdust? Will the Scorchies manifest themselves in new bodies? The show wont be over until the cockney bargirl sings! The all-singing, all-dancing, all-self referencing Encore of the Scorchies provides all the answers: 8/10


Anonymous said...

i am quite fond of the scorchies though don't have much experience with jago and lightfoot beyond their trips with 6. is it a jumping on point or should i go right back to the beginning?

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