American politics, we are reminded in the first few minutes of Jack Dempsey’s award-winning musical, The Fix, has a rich history of promising a lot and delivering very little.
At this very moment the country has the unenviable job of electing a new president and the world shivers in trepidation to see if the most powerful nation on this planet will soon be governed by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
So a revival of The Fix couldn’t be more prescient. I’m not saying that the US political system is rife with corruption but the public has learned a lot over the years, certainly enough to make us feel very afraid.
The Fix is an epic star-spangled soap opera featuring a terrifying and ruthlessly ambitious woman, her weak, drug-addled son, warring brothers, the Mafia and a sleazy addict ex stripper. The West Wing it ain’t.
It first came to the UK nearly 20 years ago backed by Cameron Mackintosh, directed by Sam Mendes, and staged at the Donmar. It has a superb pedigree so what better to be the first into the new headquarters of London’s Union Theatre, which has moved about 50-feet across the road to a vastly superior, and better equipped building.
And this enthralling musical really delivers on its manifesto. It’s a funny, engaging satire that lifts the lid on the sleazy underbelly of American politics.
It stars Fra Fee as Cal Chandler, a callow youth with little intellect or political ambition.
He is dragged into his mother’s ambitious plans to have a Chandler in the White House – although if Hillary can run I struggle to see why the headstrong Violet Chandler couldn’t stake her own claim on the Oval office.
When we first meet Cal he’s rocking a Brando look in a white tee-shirt covering a muscular body, and jeans. His biggest decision of the day is whether to hit on the waitress or another bottle of whisky – but mommy dearest has other ideas.
Michael Strassen, who first directed The Fix at the old Union Theatre four years ago, is determined to get the audience’s attention the moment the show opens.
We see Cal’s senator father, Reed, bent over a couch being thrashed and throttled into, what turns out to be, the biggest – and final – thrill of his life. You can imagine the headlines.
His “grieving” widow, Violet is distraught that her plans for high office have been thwarted – until she hits on a scheme to groom her only son to take the long road to Washington.
She turns to her brother-in-law, power-broker and lawyer Grahame, to act as Mr Fix-It, using his influence to turn her waster of a son into a major contender for the greatest job in global politics. It’s a tough, if not impossible, task.
Lucy Williamson gives a riveting performance as the manipulative and driven Violent Chandler, a woman who makes Lady Macbeth seem pale and insignificant.
At one point she stops the show, ripping off her black wig, glowering at the audience in an almost uncontrollable rage, and giving a heart-stopping, emotionally-charged, rendition of the powerhouse ballad, Spin. It’s a moment filled with anger and frustration about a life unfulfilled, of lost opportunities, and helplessness.
The show’s musical numbers (lyrics by Dempsey and music by Dana P Rowe) are a mix of blues, jazz, impassioned rhythmic evangelical music and ballads. Some are catchy but none are overly memorable.
Elsewhere Madalena Alberto proves a powerful diversion for Cal, playing a hippy, drug-taking, ex stripper who becomes the contender’s mistress. She has a remarkable voice (only too evident when she was in Evita) but it was occasionally too soft to hear over the Union’s air conditioning.
Veteran stage and screen star Ken Christiansen is hugely watchable as Grahame, the brother who didn’t get any of the breaks in life, but, through stealth, actually holds most of the power.
The lyrics to “Two Guys at Harvard” are shockingly non-PC but Christiansen, who has a splendid singing voice, makes them almost acceptable in an ironic way.
A compelling story, superbly acted with backing from a talented ensemble of singers and dancers.
The Fix plays at The Union Theatre until August 6.
In the land of the free and home of the brave it takes balls to make it to the top. Jack Dempsey’s The Fix is epic star-spangled storytelling.