I’m a sucker for a rhyme with chutzpah – so when The Opinion Makers’ opening song matched “Germany” with “sermony”, I knew I was in for an entertaining night. With its promisingly quirky setting, a 1960’s market research agency, this comic musical packs in a lot of equally promising tunes; and it raised plenty of laughs through its intricate use of language and often-surprising turns of phrase. Conventional wisdom says there are three parts to a musical, and two of them – the lyrics and the music – are strong.
But the plot is a disappointment. The downside of having so many funny songs is that they squeeze out the big, character-defining numbers, leaving little room for the moments of unexpected tenderness which have characterised writing-duo Mitchell and Nixon’s recent work. And while the opening number hints at some winning themes – including trans-Atlantic rivalry, room-sized computers, and the white heat of 60’s technology – they’re promptly forgotten for most of the musical, sidelined by generic sub-plots which lack a firm anchor in a specific place or time.
Although we don’t learn a great deal about the characters, what we do see is often amusing. Highlights include a bombastic MP, played by the ever-committed David Mounfield, who huffs his way apoplectically through the night’s best song – an extended rant on a very specific abuse of the English language. But my favourite figure, I think, is the spaced-out marketing guru, an alarming vision of what might have happened if John Lennon had gone into brand design. Lloyd Ryan Thomas captures the character beautifully, and (along with Heather Urquhart) he proves to have a fine singing voice too.
But the cast also includes a buffoonish Scottish laird – I counted five separate jokes about how tight-fisted he is – and an in-your-face American, who at one point actually does use the phrase “wait a goddamn cotton-pickin’ minute”. These characters are simply stereotypes, and they occupy a dangerous middle ground: not artful enough to stand modern scrutiny, yet not crass enough to be an obvious parody of humour from a bygone age.
And that same sense, of going slightly too far yet not quite far enough, permeates other aspects of the work. A huge chunk of the plot is blatantly borrowed from a real-world marketing fiasco – but in the absence of a knowing joke to highlight the parallel, there’s a risk we might suspect they were hoping we wouldn’t notice. In a similar vein, several of the songs felt reminiscent of tunes I’d heard before, but only one (a hilarious run-down of the nation’s favourite things) is unambiguously a pastiche.
There’s a lot to enjoy about The Opinion Makers, and if you don’t think too hard about it you’ll enjoy a fun-filled night. But it’s a series of tuneful sketches, not quite a musical, and I missed the emotional depth and thematic consistency I’ve come to expect from Mitchell and Nixon’s plays. It’s deeply ironic – but life imitates art, and I find myself longing for a return to their “classic” brand of offbeat but thought-provoking theatre.