Five actors, two time periods, and one giant condemnation of tabloid journalism make up IrrePRESSible, a new musical tackling the life of Emma Hamilton. You know the one: Lord Nelson’s side piece.
Only IrrePRESSible challenges you to look at Emma Hamilton (played by Caitlyn Calfas) as so much more than that. The musical begins at a tabloid press office where an angry editor gets increasingly frustrated as his journalists suggest ideas for headlines that will catch the public’s attention. Telling the truth, it seems, doesn’t matter as long as the papers sell.
“Where’s Beth?” the increasingly irate editor shouts as his staff continue to disappoint him. “Beth will know what to write.” Soon Beth, the paper’s star reporter, appears with a properly salacious scoop that the whole office hails as life-saving.
To get her story, Beth must follow a celebrity to an art museum and catch them having an affair. Beth arrives at the museum too late to catch her target and starts looking around the museum’s exhibit of famous women, cynically criticizing most of the ladies portrayed…until one of them criticizes her back. Beth has no sooner finished sneering at a portrait of Emma Hamilton, calling her Nelson’s bits on the side, when the portrait comes to life, condemning Beth’s, and all other tabloid journalists’, lurid desire to defame celebrities for their own gain. Emma Hamilton, now living and walking in the 21st century, invites Beth to come back to her own time and write about her life as she really lived it.
From there the musical takes us to the 18th century, from Emma Hamilton’s humble beginnings and her decision to run away to London, through her career as a prostitute, model, muse, mistress of rich men, and finally wife of Sir William Hamilton. Then comes the part that we all know: a married Lady Hamilton encounters Lord Nelson and the two, madly in love, begin an affair that is tolerated by Lady Hamilton’s husband. The trio continues on well enough until Lord Hamilton dies and Nelson is summoned to Trafalgar where he perishes in battle and is remembered as a hero. The public adulation does not extend to Emma, however. She is despised by all and left to die alone and in poverty. Beth watches this all unfold with growing sympathy and horror and, as Emma dies by her side, she realizes bitterly that she is losing a friend. As the show draws to a close, Beth reveals that IrrePRESSible is her work and her way of finally documenting the truth of Emma Hamilton’s life since mere words could not properly capture such a spirit.
IrrePRESSible clearly has two aims in mind: to correct the slander against Emma Hamilton and to decry the voyeuristic relationship between the press and celebrities. The latter aim, I would say, it achieves quite well. By starting the story in a tabloid press office, we are given time to wallow in the cruel, mercenary world of journalists who have sold their sense of integrity for a few dollars more. Then, as Emma Hamilton takes us back in time, we are able to see how this sordid attitude affects real people. IrrePRESSible’s indictment of lie mongering journalists felt properly worked into the fabric of the story and certainly made this journalist pause and reflect on the power of words.
IrrePRESSible’s achievement of their other goal, however, was more of a mixed bag. The creators of the show clearly had an affection for their subject which really lent the production a lot of warmth and appeal. The fact that the whole show was framed as Beth’s way of telling the truth about Emma’s life because mere words wouldn’t do her justice grounded the show in our reality and invited us to love this misunderstood woman that Beth had learned to love. It also nicely furthered the theme of time travel as we went from the far past (Emma’s time) to the recent past (the exchange in the art museum) all the way up to the present, where our presence in the seats of the theatre becomes a witness to the truth of Emma’s life. This warmth and affection certainly did much to prove that Emma Hamilton did not deserve to be vilified. However, it didn’t make much of an argument to prove that Emma should be lionized the way the play chose to lionize her.
In one pivotal scene, Beth begs Emma not to degrade herself as Emma is about to embark upon a life of prostitution. Emma rebukes her, saying she did what she had to do to survive in the harsh world she was given. The whole show, in a way, can be interpreted as an echo of that scene: again and again, Emma has the wits and the guts to take advantage of her looks and of man’s lust to survive and to get ahead. She is not to be pitied or vilified for that, she is to be commended, but is she a hero for that? IrrePRESSible seems to think so, but I’m not so sure. Is someone a hero merely for getting by and making the best of their harsh circumstances?
If IrrePRESSible wanted to claim that yes, a person can be a hero just for rising above a bad situation, I would like to have seen more of an argument. I would have liked to see more scenes fleshing out Emma’s character and drive, showing the shades of her personality and making her a friend to us, the way she eventually became a friend to Beth. I would have liked to have seen a bit more intent in Ms. Calfas’ acting, showing just how much work and self-sacrifice it took for Emma to get where she did. Changes like that may have convinced me that Emma Hamilton is a woman worth lionizing.
Various other flaws in the execution also served to lessen the show’s argument that Emma Hamilton deserves to be considered a hero. The performers were stronger actors than they were singers, and the less-than-stellar diction made me feel that I was missing out on some nuances of the story. The music wasn’t particularly memorable, only occasionally making use of leitmotifs other musical tools that could have told a more compelling story. Finally, the costumes and the other elements of the production were as bare bones as one can expect at the Fringe. While a stripped-down design can greatly enhance some shows, I think this particular show would be bettered if it embraced the spectacle of lavish sets and costumes traditional to musical theatre. Perhaps that can be saved for the revival…
All in all this show was well put together, well-intentioned, and good fun. The story was original and the messages, though a bit preachy at times, were on point. It made a rather ambitious claim: that a person who got by how she could and used her bad circumstances to her advantage, shouldn’t just be respected but should be idolized. I think the show lacked the artistic clarity and nuance to properly support this claim.
Recommended Drink: Champagne. As bubbly as possible!
Catch Irrepressible through the 26th of August. Tickets are available through the EdFringe Box Office.