Director John King's take on Schwartz and Hirson's production surpassed all expectations. Harry Stockwell

“We’ve got magic to do – just for you; we’ve got miracle plays to play; we’ve got parts to perform – hearts to warm...” The lyrics to their opening performance promised great potential for Cambridge University Musical Theatre Society’s ensuing show, setting up high expectations that were not only met but were far exceeded in what was a truly spectacular performance – even, one might say, bridging on West End standards.

A seamless assortment of tragedy, comedy, romance, fairy tale, pantomime, fable, fantasy and Bildungsroman in musical form combined upon the stage of Venue 34 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and was directed and produced to a high standard. All this combined with the phenomenal theatrical talent (especially notable in performances by Oli MacFarlane, Caroline Sautter and Megan Henson) and a fantastic sound from the live band made this a production to be proud of.  

The show employed a range of techniques – puppet-string concepts creating shadows behind screens, dance, song, and a collaboration of both literal and abstract choreography – to phenomenal effect. Its dance choreography and physical theatre was truly spectacular, with well-mapped routines, executed to full effect to produce brilliant live dancing that merged within the overarching genre of musical theatre. Creative lighting enabled clear and full enjoyment of these dance routines, focusing and drawing attention excellently. Yet lighting was moreover effective in its emotional value, employing  different colour filters and even on-stage candles to skilful effect, setting the ambience – be it a dangerous threat of murder or a potential success of kingship, underhand plotting or emotions of love and romance – and heightening the previously established atmosphere, plot and characterisation.

Characterisation was clear, in-depth and successfully maintained throughout. Being based on a historically accurate tale of King Charles the Great, the Holy Roman Emperor ("and a giant in the bedroom"!), his son Pippin and a wide assortment of supporting characters, it was potentially liable to accusations of ‘boring’ historical factuality. On the contrary, however, each character possessed individual, diverse and memorable traits, enabling a cast that was both factual and entertaining. This was undoubtedly aided by relevant costumes and fantastical make-up that added to the pantomimic and fairy-tale aspects of the piece.

There were some undeniable errors with make-up and costume slip-ups, occasional prop-drops and moments of clumsiness – a paraffin lamp failing to light, for example – as well as tangled lines and entries. Yet these are, arguably, inevitable in any opening performance, and were well covered-up and moulded into the script to become barely noticeable to the audience who remained entirely focused and enchanted throughout.

Overall, a fantastic production team, skilled performers – excelling in a combination of acting, dancing, and singing – and a brilliant band combined to create a truly phenomenal performance: my personal Fringe favourite.