REVIEW: Longitude (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Seafarers have been setting sail for thousands of years but for much of that time nautical navigation has posed a huge challenge. Long before the invention of radar and GPS technology, sailors grappled with the problem of how to accurately identify their position at sea, often resulting in catastrophe. After the Scilly Naval disaster of 1707, the Board of Longitude was established to offer rewards to those who could come up with an accurate device for measuring longitude at sea. Up for the challenge was John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker who revolutionised navigation with the invention of the marine chronometer. But political rivalries meant Harrison struggled to get the recognition he deserved, despite dedicating his life to the cause. Premiering at Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Longitude is a new musical that celebrates his remarkable achievements.

David Phipps-Davis as John Harrison in Longitude. Image credit: Nicola Young Photography

Written by Kaz Moloney (featuring original book by Robert Trippini and new book by Kaz Moloney), Longitude is a promising new musical. The story is compelling, condensing many years of Harrison’s life into a snappy 90 or so minutes (plus interval). In that time, it rattles through a total of 22 songs (by Kaz Moloney, William Godfree and David Moloney). It’s obviously been very carefully crafted, but it feels like a prototype at the moment. Rather like Harrison’s first attempt at the chronometer, it has all the constituent parts for something very special, but it’s in need of some refinement.

Because it’s quite short, some elements of the plot feel underdeveloped, including a quite twee love story between Harrison’s daughter (Imogen Opie) and the local fishmonger (Liam Bradbury). This either needs fleshing out or removing altogether; probably the latter. Having spent time studying musical theatre, the writers seem to have slightly fallen into the trap of thinking that all musicals must rigidly follow the same form. They could do with ripping up the chart and letting themselves get lost at sea a little; quite literally. While there is a bit of backstory around Harrison’s son who died at sea, much more could be made of this. We hear about the tragic loss of life but we see very little of the dangers of the ocean, beyond some limited projections (from David Moloney) and a generic song that doesn’t tap into the real human side of the story.

The cast of Longitude. Image credit: Nicola Young Photography

There are some amusing moments, particularly from Abigail Brodie who is highly entertaining as a member of the Board, but especially so in her role as King George III. The production would benefit from of this, with the comedy ramped up further to create greater juxtaposition against the pathos.

A longer production would also allow scope for greater character development. The Board are mere caricatures at present despite representing significant individuals from history. In particular, it would have been nice to see more of the semi-villainous character of The Reverend Nevil Maskelyne (Alex Lyne), a rival to Harrison due to his belief in the superiority of lunar methods of calculating longitude.

The music works well enough to convey the plot, although sometimes feels like it’s trying too hard (again, perhaps a symptom of feeling constrained by ideas of how a musical should sound, rather than just focusing on using the music as a natural part of the storytelling). Some of the lyrics are also quite clunky; a point that is even acknowledged in one of the most entertaining songs.

Overall, Longitude is an enjoyable work as it is but it feels like there is an even better musical trying to swim to the surface. It’s a compelling story with some really interesting elements, performed by an excellent ensemble. It has real promise but, like its protagonist, needs time and investment.

Longitude plays at Upstairs at the Gatehouse from 13 June to 7 July 2024. We received a complimentary ticket to the press performance on 14 June.

Longitude has partnered with two charities; the RNLI and Orpington Sea Cadets. 10% of the production profits will be donated to the RNLI Tower station.

Image credit: Nicola Young Photography

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