This is the little show that could. Rob Madge’s short, sweet, autobiographical solo musical premiered at Battersea’s Turbine Theater in 2021, was a hit at the Edinburgh Fringe, and now comes to the West End in a burst of DIY fabulousness.
It is a joyful love letter to the personal expression and to the parents of Madge, born in Coventry, who have struggled for six years to conceive a child through IVF, and then allowed their only precocious child, affected by the stage, to evolve into the charismatic and non-binary artist of today.
It began in 2020 when Madge began posting online VHS videos of the shows they staged as children in the family’s living room. In most of them, they wear a wig and a Disney heroine outfit – Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, Belle from Beauty and the Beast – and many involve their dad, John, as a willing henchman and a straight man.
Those videos now form the backbone of the show, with Madge describing the arc of her personal and professional evolution through gleefully inspired, self-produced songs in between. Calling it a multimedia show, however, would drastically overestimate the sophistication of the video technology of the 1990s.
Ryan Dawson Laight’s set is a fantasy version of that Midlands living room, where the sideboard holds an array of spotlights, a chest of drawers represents a stairway to stardom, and a large, lighted version of a TV screen hangs above.
Madge – moustached, shaved head, in a babydoll dress over tank top and shorts – invites us to laugh and with the attention-seeking child appearing on it, hogging the camera and announcing each new performance with the prompt “drum roll. please!” The grim demeanor of the grown-up Madge means there is a little lemon mixed in to temper the pure and delicious selfishness of the younger.
The serious point is that teachers and friends have tried to stifle the exuberance that would eventually give Madge a career as a child, then adult, musical artist. “Rob needs to be careful that her dramatic facial expressions don’t upset some of her peers,” reads one of the many preschool reports that suggest that Madge spends too much time in the fancy play area of the classroom.
Madge’s parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, meanwhile, made costumes and puppet theaters for young Rob, created a flying Peter Pan rig on the garden swing, and were generally nothing but loving and bright.
It’s hard not to be moved by the family’s mutual affection and care, even if it results in a uniformity of tone during a show that’s, a little over an hour, on the slim side. Madge has a strong voice and writes witty lyrics, but the songs are generic-inspired ballads. These are minor quibbles, however, with fascinating work clearly striking a deep chord.
Garrick Theater, running until 6 November; for business cards Tickets ES