I grew up watching heroic wartime films, so I already know the story of “the man who never was”. It’s history’s most successful military deception; a dead man in naval uniform washed up on the coast of Spain, carrying a forged letter filled with falsehoods about the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. But of course, before they could plant their misleading clues, the British intelligence services needed a body. And this new musical is the story of that body – of Glyndwr Michael, who died as a vagrant, and then became the man who never was.
Dead In The Water is billed as a tragicomedy, though it’s more restrained than that description suggests. The humour could stand being broader, and the more sinister scenes could certainly be darker. But I loved the sharp wit of the lyrically-dense songs, and Glyndwr’s death, the one moment of out-and-out black humour, is destined to be a comic highlight of this year’s Fringe.
The hard-working cast do a fine job staying on top of the complex script, and all have fine singing voices which they can turn to a variety of styles. I have to say, though, that a lot of accents drifted, and the dream-like quality which defines the production occasionally translated to unintended confusion over exactly who was who. Sharper motifs to delineate each actor’s multiple roles would help here, and might deliver additional comic potential too.
Creators Paul Tibbey and Mark Sims have a fine understanding of what it takes to build a musical, working in both sensitive solos and crowd-pleasing song-and-dance numbers. The latter were catchy and performed with gusto, but seemed a little slight; it felt like they were written for a larger-scale production with the scope to deliver more razzmatazz. The solos, though, are uniformly excellent, with Sophie Lewis Hughes’s lament for the loves she never had delivering a particular emotional punch.
The basic idea behind the musical is that we’re gathered in a hazy afterlife, where Glyndwr can at last meet the people who turned him into “the man who never was”. It’s a clever hook, but they try to hang a bit too much off it. There’s a distracting hint of conspiracy theory – that Military Intelligence persuaded Glyndwr to kill himself, rather than selecting his body from those who had already died – and while that sets things up nicely for a touching song about personal sacrifice, there simply isn’t room in an hour-long musical to explore such a startling proposal.
Much more successful, I felt, was the parallel storyline involving Major Martin, the fictional man who Glyndwr’s cadaver became. In the alternate world portrayed by the musical, Major Martin is a walking, talking character, making the most of his invented existence yet very much aware that he’s scripted to die. He has some wonderful lines of stiff-upper-lip dialogue and, being an artificial creation, has the licence to be as amusingly stereotyped as his creators want him to be.
Overall, I think Dead In The Water commits that most common of Fringe-theatre errors: attempting to cram too much in. They could safely lose some large chunks of spoken exposition, and find a tighter, simpler, emotionally-cleaner premise which it’s easier to properly buy into. I hope they do that; because the basic concept is sound, and some of the songs are superb. And for all its flaws, Dead In The Water made me care about the forgotten Glyndwr. If he is watching from a world beyond the grave, I hope he’s feeling proud.