REVIEW: FANATICAL (Playground Theatre) ★★★

Proving you really can make a musical about anything, the sci-fi-themed “Fanatical” opened recently at the Playground Theatre.

The musical introduces us to ‘Angel 8’, a sci-fi television series with a strong and loyal fanbase despite it having slightly dodgy dialogue, iffy costumes and generally a bit wobbly in a ‘Flash Gordon’ kind of way. The success of the series has led to ‘Eight:Con:One’, a convention where the fans can get together, meet other fans, dress in costumes, meet the stars and the show’s creator, Scott Furnish (played by Stephen Frost). In charge of organising the day is Trix (Suanne Braun), whose day gets progressively more stressful as Furnish fails to arrive as scheduled. With fans going into hyperdrive and anticipation building for Furnish’s arrival, some unexpected news sends shockwaves throughout the convention, threatening Trix’s sanity and the very future of Angel 8 itself…

Fanatical” explores issues ranging from identity and inclusion, social interaction and self esteem, to the age of social media and spoilers, and captures just the right level of devotion, admiration and passion that sci-fi fans have for their genre, be it interacting with other fans on forums or creating fan art and self-published stories. As someone who queued up to meet Spike and Cordelia from Buffy The Vampire Slayer at Collectormania in Milton Keynes many (many) years ago, I remember this well. There’s actually a pretty strong comparison to be made between fans of sci-fi and fans of musicals, with both sharing a deep love and knowledge of their chosen art forms, and turning up in their droves to support them. Sometimes in outfits. Check the stage doors of hits like Wicked, Heathers and Hamilton – these fans are devoted. And why shouldn’t they be. As the show’s self-titled closing number says, everyone needs something in their lives that they should be proud of being totally fanatical about. As long as it’s legal, obviously. So a sci-fi musical actually makes a lot of sense.

The staging is efficient and makes the most of the space, and a great deal of time and care have clearly gone into the artwork that frames the stage, along with being on display in the foyer and also in the programme. The world of ‘Angel 8’ and its characters have been well-thought out and it shows.

The songs are a mixed bag, some memorable, others less so. The show could use a stronger opening number, as “Ready To Launch” doesn’t hook you in as strongly as it probably should. Most of the songs have clever lyrics, and are generously sprinkled with numerous sci-fi references that fans of the genre will lap up, from Lord Of The Rings and Star Trek to Harry Potter and Batman. “Me Slash You” is the standout song from Act 1, a catchy number between Baxter and Andra inspired by internet “slash” fan fiction. Act 2 holds the other more memorable songs – “Collected”, a rather lovely ballad between Craig and Baxter; “Any Moment Now”, a playful “raunchy” comedy number by Trix, and “Fanatical”, a fantastic upbeat number sung by the whole cast which ends the show on a high, in the same way that “You Can’t Stop The Beat” sends Hairspray audiences dancing out of the doors.

The book could be stronger, with a little more focus needed on finding the comedy and exploring the rich opportunities for either homage or spoofery that the sci-fi genre naturally lends itself well to. The cast however are all strong and work hard – Suanne Braun does well holding the piece together in an almost maternal role of the convention’s organiser, and Eddy Payne and Sophie Powles also give endearing and fun performances as Andra and Baxter respectively. Special mention also needs to go to Amy Lovatt, who shines in one of the less prominent roles as Lizette and radiates warmth and charm every time she’s on stage. She is one to watch for the future.

Its heart may be bigger than its creative merits, but “Fanatical” is a fun watch that finds its feet in its second half, and with a sentiment of being proud to embrace what you love despite what the rest of the world might think, it’s worth 2 hours of your time.

Reviewed by Rob Bartley

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