For all its intended ‘eccentricity’ and message of acceptance, Eugenius! is as formulaic and problematic as musicals come. If this is the ‘Zoella’ generation’s equivalent of Rocky Horror, I’m sorry but they deserve better.
A copious amount of ‘geek musicals’ have arrived in – and around – the West End as of late. We’ve had Loserville, Bananaman, The Toxic Avenger, Saucy Jack and the Space Vixens, (to varying extents) Heathers and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, more than one Little Shop revival – and now the Other Palace’s revival of Eugenius! – in the last five years, and it’s not difficult to understand the commercial reasoning.
The ‘jocks-getting-their-asses-kicked’ narrative has been around since – well – sometime after Grease came out (alas: the original Eugene didn’t quite get the ‘intellectual underdog’ happy ending of his own), but more importantly for producers – and as very evident at The Other Palace’s Gala night for this reworked revival – shows celebrating the wackiness and kind-heartedness of geeks appear to attract a very loyal (to use a perhaps sensitive word, ‘cult’) following. For me, the highlight of my Eugenius! experience was nothing that took place onstage – but watching the audience, particularly the front couple of rows, during the finale. The ‘regulars’, in addition to who one assumes were the creative team and special guests, knew every word and action as instinctively as they’d know the Macarena – positioning the show, unequivocally, as some sort of Rocky Horror Picture Show equivalent for the ‘Zoella’ generation.
Watching the sheer joy exuding from every pore of these superfans makes the following so tricky to say – because clearly this is a show that has ample resonance for some (one assumes they must have at least seen it 3 or 4 times prior, or studied the show fanatically on YouTube, in order to have nailed the choreography so perfectly…) – but putting that niche audience aside, and viewing this objectively, I’m sorry to say I found Eugenius! to be the biggest car-crash – and frankly most boring theatrical experience – of my year.
Written by Ben Adams (of A1 fame) and Chris Wilkins, there’s so much I feel I need to call out about Eugenius! that it’s overwhelming to know where to begin. We’ll go with the plot: a comic-book fan creates his own benevolent fictional character, Tough Man, and is transported to Hollywood to make his screenwriting debut by a sleazy producer/director (the roles seem to blur…). I suppose the writers’ intention is the show then turns into a ‘farce’, or at least a witty parody of 80’s movies, with the arrival of movie-star ‘Theo Schlong’ and an alien – who shouts too much – called Evil Lord Hector. The issue is that ‘silliness’ on stage requires ample precision to be funny and not intensely distancing and baffling, and a script that’s been crafted to run like clockwork – establishing a credible premise, before unwinding (with logic intact).
We’re treated to none of that here – the story is vapid and the wrong (alienating) sort of nonsensical, failing to satirise the antiquated narrative of comics (ie. muscular white men beat the bad-guys and claim a scantily-clad damsel in distress as their automatic prize) anywhere near enough for it to not feel awkward. Eugenius!’s gender politics are troubling, quite frankly: one of my scrawled notes from the night literally reads ‘does this musical hate women?‘. The damsel of Tough Man’s story, ‘Super Hot Girl’, literally doesn’t have any words at one point in the show; she stands there like a lemon and waits for a man to cover for her. At no point are the tables ever turned…at no point is she later allowed agency and the final laugh. The other women are all portrayed as either ‘comically’ clueless or simply quite pathetic too, and again, these characterisations are never adequately rectified.
To this end, for all its intended ‘eccentricity’ and message of acceptance, Eugenius! actually comes across as surprisingly formulaic and insipid. On another note, I can’t quite remember the last time I saw a less ‘diverse’ cast. Bar one ensemble member (who the male leads, incidentally, seem to kill – and, when not doing that, sexualise – more than anyone else…), the copious ‘whiteness’ onstage is really quite uncomfortable.
The show’s synthy soundtrack is far less problematic but not outstanding (the music only really taking off, in my opinion, with ‘Go Eugenius!’), and the cast are solid and well-drilled but again – for a show that presumably prides itself on its screwiness – a little bland. Scott Paige – finally – brings a bit of flair to the show (albeit again facing into a stereotype without there ever being a moment of subversion), but not enough to save it.
As I outlined near the beginning, this musical is clearly some people’s ‘happy place’ and I’m by no means trying to – or going to – take that away from them. But for a standard musical-theatre going audience, Eugenius! is about as far from ‘genius’ as I could’ve imagined. Geeks, and the Zoella generation as a whole, really do deserve better than the material on offer here.