‘High Fidelity’ review

Theatre, Musicals
2 out of 5 stars
High Fidelity the Musical, Turbine Theatre, 2019
Photograph: Mark Senior

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

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This creepy musical version of the Nick Hornby classic has a sort of WTF charm to it

Look: in retrospect, a lot of things we thought were okay in the ‘90s were not okay. Nonetheless, I’d maintain with a reasonable amount of certainty (it has been a while) that ‘High Fidelity’ – Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel about an unlucky-in-love music geek – was fairly benign. Ditto the Americanised John Cusack film that came five years later.

I say this because the musical incarnation of ‘High Fidelity’ is, I’m afraid to say, creepy as hell. 

I guess the main issue is that while on page and on screen, Rob – the record store-owning protagonist – is presented as a bit of a loser who undoubtedly makes some very poor life choices, he is, very crucially, Not a Psychopath.  

Here a large number of songs are extrapolated from his fixation with ex-girlfriend Laura, and at best he comes across like a stalker, at worst a genuine danger to society. Where Hornby was quite deft in plotting Rob’s journey out of the shallower waters of toxic masculinity, Amanda Green’s lyrics are completely lacking in that sort of subtlety. ‘You can run little girl but you’ll never be free’ runs one of the more horrifying lines – words you absolutely cannot imagine Hornby writing.

Matters aren’t helped in this belated UK premiere in the casting of Oliver Ormson as Rob; his brooding intensity and razor-sharp cheekbones make him look like a handsome serial killer. He’s quite likeable whether he opens his mouth, but the death stare resting face adds to the general sense that this whole endeavour is not panning out the way that was probably intended.

The big dilemma here: Tom Jackson Greaves’s production makes for a weirdly enjoyable show, if you accept it’s about a sociopath and his duo of incel wingmen. Indeed, given Rob doesn’t hurt anyone other than himself, there is a certain campy pleasure to how terrible his behaviour is, assuming you don’t find it actively triggering. The songs are generally light pop-rock more memorable for the WTF lyrics than the actual tunes. But the delicate alt country numbers sung by Eleanor Kane’s minor indie star character Marie are actually very nice. And the Turbine aren’t going into this blind. Women are foregrounded where possible. And it’s obvious people were aware the book is on the uncomfortable side – hence Brit comic Vikki Stone was drafted in to give it an update, though I genuinely shudder to think what she must have taken out if this is what we’re left with.

Basically it’s a solid production of a musical that prooooooobably should never have been written. ‘High Fidelity’ flopped hard on Broadway in 2006 and it has absolutely not been worth the 13-year-wait for it to hit these shores. But at the same time, a 200-seat fringe theatre is a lot more forgiving of this sort of thing: a production of a problematic musical doesn’t always equate with wholehearted endorsement. 

Like one of those old ’45s with a cracking melody and really disturbing lyrics about how the singer wants to bang an underage girl, I guess it’s up to you whether you can enjoy ‘High Fidelity’ on its own terms, or just find the whole thing too icky to bother with.


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