Rosalind Peters 8 May 2014

It’s very rare to witness a standing ovation at the ADC.  Yet last night, those who attended the concert performance of The Last Hundred, a new musical by Henry Jenkinson and Ellen Robertson, did just that.  One could not help but feel it was an appropriate accolade for the stunning blend of prowess and poignancy that was presented.

Being a work in progress, the numbers were presented without attachment to a definite story, and not necessarily in their final order.  However, we were assured that the opening number would maintain its place introducing the company, band, and subject matter on an anthemic scale.  Indeed, it gave us the first taste of the strong, folklike quality of Jenkinson’s score, complete with sumptuous, tight vocal harmonies and simple choruses which would starkly contrast with (and thereby underline) the profound tragedy of war.  This folklike flavour was especially noticeable in the male group numbers, one of which saw Freddie Crossley add an excellent touch of accordion, and contained the lyric "They never said that we were going to die" which movingly jarred with the jaunty tune.  Other ensemble numbers, such as "When I Am Not Around" and "I Will Return" made effective use of strong singers and simple melodies.  The use of the first two notes of "The Last Post" at the very end of the hopefully message delivered in "I Will Return" were especially haunting.  On this theme, particular credit should also go to Aydan Greatrick, whose flawless vocal performance of "Set Your People Free" presented inner conflict with subtlety and grace.

This is not to say the evening was all heavy and heartbreaking.  Jess Peet and Jennie King offered an endearing performance of a duet between two young evacuees, squabbling over who is stronger.  In a different (but equally entertaining) fashion, Joey Akubeze and Paige Thompson oozed sex appeal as they whisked us away to the possibility of romance in a downtown bar.  This song, like the closing number (which used Emily Burns as a veritable Vera Lynn), really seemed to capture the spirit and style of contemporary popular music, making our transportation to the period all the more accomplished.

Love was also a topic very much in discussion.  Sam Oladeinde and Lily Parham performed a sweet and simple love song recalling the night they first met and the orchestra, conducted by the ever-brilliant Ben Glassberg, particularly shone in this piece as romantic, sweeping strings were nose-to-nose with stabs of foreboding brass.  Oladeinde graced the stage later in the evening to perform "I Know", a song from the perspective of a man aware he will never be able to fill the void that his love’s soldier-husband has left.  This song in particular rose to a dramatically moving climax, perhaps only impinged by the occasional triteness of the lyrics, which did not feel quite in keeping with the setting or up to the staggering standard of the orchestration.  However, the show is a self-confessed work-in-progress, and I am sure that, with some further nips and tucks, it has the makings of a truly emotive and powerful piece of musical theatre.  Such potential could not be better encapsulated than in the ballad "The Years Go By" a song ready even now for a fully-fledged West End diva (fittingly sung by Lauren Hutchinson, whose stunning voice is possibly the closest Cambridge’s Musical Theatre talent could wish to get to such finesse).

With the centenary of the beginning of the First World War fast approaching, we can only hope that Jenkinson (along with Ellen Robertson, who is penning the book) will be successful in showing The Last Hundred to people who can really make it fly.  From what we saw on Monday, delivered by such a strong, talented cast and band, it certainly deserves to.  We’re simply fortunate we saw it here first.