Impressive fringe premiere of this musical about a man who goes postal when he loses his job to a robot
It’s incredibly gratifying when fringe musicals are done well. Although ‘The Adding Machine’ is an obscure piece – a musical adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 expressionist play, which premiered Off-Broadway in 2008 – every element of Josh Seymour’s production, from set to singers, adds up to a polished and sophisticated whole.
Mr Zero, our antihero, is racist, misogynist, anti-semitic, homophobic. He’s also been replaced by an adding machine after 25 years at his company. So he kills his boss. Everything gets very weird, there’s a visit to a rather tacky afterlife and some dark, raw humour. But it’s a brutal satire on the daily grind and a stylish production.
Everything in Rice’s original play is reduced to its archetype, like the characters named after numbers corresponding to their social standing. Composer Joshua Schmidt and lyricist Jason Loewith go a step further and embed the show’s theme – in this case, numbers and machines –into the music as well as the lyrics. Several songs take the form of rhythmic speech, percussive and repetitive, reflecting the mechanical clanking of the machines that are taking over. Some songs are discordant and operatic, others inspired by jazz and gospel.
Joseph Alessi as Mr Zero bawls tunelessly rather than singing (although it suits his character it’s still jarring), but there’s real power from the rest of the cast, especially when they break into soaring choral harmonies. Edd Campbell Bird stands out particularly as Shrdlu, an unhinged man whom Zero meets on death row. He’s there because he slit his mother’s throat at Sunday lunch, and he sings a song about a leg of lamb. Bird has a precise voice and his transition from piety to insanity is riveting.
Frankie Bradshaw’s desolate design – a solid grey rectangle – unfolds into something spectacular as the show imparts its message: that we take our hells with us, we create our own prisons wherever we go - no redemption, no relief. That shattering truth is revealed in a final eschatological flourish, as the whole sorry cycle begins again. It may sound depressing, and it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but absurdity and surrealism offer light relief and it’s an intense, impressive production.