Paul Taylor-Mills, founder of Battersea’s Turbine Theatre and now also back in charge of The Other Palace Theatre in Victoria (which he previously ran for Andrew Lloyd Webber and is now presiding over for its new owner Bill Kenwright), has finally realised an original musical on the Turbine stage, But I’m a Cheerleader.
Based on a 1999 film about a gay conversion therapy summer camp for young gay men and lesbians, it was first presented in extract there during Taylor-Mills’ MTFestUK seasons of workshop presentations of new musicals (called off this year after controversy over the all-white line-up of writers whose work had been announced would be showcased).
In a note issued to coincide with its gala premiere, Taylor-Mills wrote: “It’s been a few years since we launched our special space hidden underneath the oldest railway bridge in London. In lots of ways it’s utter madness and shouldn’t work, but thanks to an army of supporters (mainly Bill Kenwright!), we’ve been able to create and thrive, even through the obstacles that the last couple of years have brought.
“Given this slight pause, I wanted to take this opportunity to remind myself and our audience of our initial vision. The Turbine Theatre sets out to provide a safe space for new work to be developed. A space where work could be nurtured and audiences responses were considered as an essential ingredient for how that work grows. This desire stays firmly in place and we’re thrilled that tonight’s show is the very first project to have come through our musical theatre festival – MTFestUK.
Tonight is monumental for lots of reasons. It marks the first brand-new musical to be presented at The Turbine Theatre. Additionally, this particular musical has been a 20-year journey for the writers and a four-year journey for myself. All that said we all hope that this is just the beginning.”
All of which is a useful reminder of just how long the development timeline of new musicals invariably is.
And though there are, inevitably, grumbles on Twitter that this is an American-written show that is now being given this prize opportunity instead of a British one, two points should be made: one, given that this is an entirely privately funded and operated theatre, it is also entirely up to Taylor-Mills as artistic director what sort of work he wants to invest in and promote; and two, he has drawn on an American producing partner — Adam Bialow, formerly an executive with Lionsgate, the film and TV company who produced the original film — to co-finance this run. And with a 12-strong cast and band of three, it can’t be exactly cheap to produce it in this small space.
The show’s format and milieu may hardly be original — we are yet again in the high school genre, from the home-grown UK musical EVERYBODY’S TALKING ABOUT JAMIE to Broadway’s THE PROM (both of them subsequently adapted as feature films) that specifically address gay high school experiences, along with shows like HEATHERS, BE MORE CHILL, BRING IT ON and DEAR EVAN HANSEN that variously put teen trauma on stage.
And while others in this list have variously addressed homophobia, bullying and depression amongst teens, BUT I’M A CHEERLEADER constantly has its bright, cheerful surface atmosphere offset with more serious undercurrents, not all of it fully earned; but at least the show has higher aspirations. A slick — if overlong — production. directed by Tania Azevedo, is full of terrific performances, led by the tremendous Alice Croft. Alongside some newer faces (to me), it was also great to see the always-cherishable Tiffany Graves (though she’s playing an uncherishable villain here) and the wonderful Jodie Steele.
The premiere of @BIACheerleader at @TurbineTheatre at last is ‘a useful reminder of just how long the development timeline of #newmusicals invariably is,’ says @ShentonStage. With kudos to AD @PaulTaylorMills. #ButImACheerleader #OffWestEnd