The Finborough has been at the forefront of London fringe theatre supplying a regular stream (in both senses of the word) of material during their enforced closure and have managed to keep up with their declared aim of providing a recorded play every month. This has meant that at any one time there have always been three or four to choose from, giving access to shows that have been performed at the venue in the last few years. And with an eye to accessibility their partnership with the Scenesaver website has provided properly captioned versions of the same plays. Their latest offering is Adding Machine: A Musical. This is based on the American expressionist classic of the 1920s by Elmer Rice.
On the face of it, the play is not an obvious choice for being given a musical makeover – but then the makeover it has been given is far from obvious either. Creators Jason Loewith and Joshua Schmidt have won a great deal of praise and several awards for their unusual score and some lyrics which only pass muster with the caveat that they are reflecting the attitudes of the times when the play was written – if racist and sexist language are likely to offend then give this one a wide berth.
Apparently influenced by the work of Kurt Weill, the music is far from an easy listen. There are passages where repetition occurs to the point of it being maddening and much use is made of dissonance. At times I couldn’t help feeling that it was in danger of becoming a complete shambles; probably that was the intention but rather as with some of the language if you’re looking for a comfortable non-threatening musical then this probably isn’t for you.
The storyline is straightforward enough, thank goodness. A mild-mannered office worker celebrating 25 years in his job is given the push in favour of a new automated adding machine. He kills his boss and is sentenced to death. In the second half he finds himself in the Elysian fields and discovers that this is not all its cracked up to be either.
The key character is tellingly called Mr Zero and others are also referred to numerically (Mr One, Mrs Two, etc.); clearly this is a world where the worker is a mere cipher ground underfoot by the heel of capitalism. The personal life of the central figure is also far from tranquil; Zero is henpecked to the point where he cannot even bring himself to respond. The opening section of the piece has Mrs Zero cajoling and heckling her spouse in musical (though only just) form for what seems like an eternity. His relationship with the brightly sunny Daisy Devore offers a note of optimism but this is no musical rom com; even when Daisy follows Zero to the Elysian Fields there will be no happy ending for our hapless hero as he has merely swapped one cruel regimen for another.
At the centre of events, Joseph Alessi plays Zero as a victim of the system who, for a brief moment, decides to take his revenge. Although he tries to rebel a second time against the celestial system, he still finds himself sucked back in and spat right out. Alessi therefore has the difficult job of conjuring sympathy for a man to whom things happen rather than as a proactive hero type. In that he is largely successful, but it is a tricky balancing act. As the two women in his life, Kate Milner-Evans and Joanna Kirkland (Mrs Zero and Daisy respectively) are rather one dimensional because that is the way they are written. They both have strong singing voices and particular kudos to the former for handling a vocal line which, at times, borders on the bizarre and unlistenable. A team of five others successfully play a variety of roles both in this life and afterwards.
Space in the Finborough is always at a premium, but Frankie Bradshaw’s design works well within its constraints even giving us an unexpectedly watery version of the afterlife. Director Josh Seymour also makes a virtue out of limited elbow room and uses the vertical as well as the horizontal space to advantage. The staging is in the round so I found the sound on the recording a little muddy, especially when performers were facing away from the camera – Top Tip: Use Scenesaver’s subtitled version for clarity. The sequences in which the cast move in mechanical, robotic fashion are well choreographed by Chi-San Howard. Ultimately this is a show to admire rather than enjoy as the musical aspects of it are extremely challenging almost, I found, to the point where I considered turning off. However, staying with it does bring its own rewards – how else are you going to find out what the afterlife looks like?