By Ellen Olley
The Trail to Oregon is a Starkid musical, based on the retro video game The Oregon Trail, following a family of five and their horny ox as they travel to the American West over the course of a year. Each night, the show is different, relying on the audience to pick the characters’ names and how the show will end. This is how, on Thursday evening, Dutty-Rah Clitmuncher and his wife Slay, together with their two children, Mom-Spaghetti and Slimy-Bitch, and Grandpa Slut, ended up on their way to the promised lands. This naming is the source of hilarity throughout the night and immediately involves the audience in these characters’ narratives. The show proved to be a light-hearted and self-aware romp without a single weak link in the cast or crew.
The unfortunately rechristened cast was exemplary, without a single weak link amongst them. Archie Collins excelled as the leading man, his slightly more tender and flamboyant take on the role rendering the character development realistic and charming. Both Ella Al-Khalil Coyle and Anna Pycock, as the mother and sister, were consummate professionals throughout, sailing through both emotional and comic numbers with practised ease, with Melissa Redman, the brother, as a wonderfully eager comic foil. Joe Rossiter and Matthew McConkey played a bafflingly large array of secondary characters with consistently high levels of energy, leaving the audience in hysterics.
The two standout performances of the night were Theo Dowglass as the grandfather and Ben Lycett as the bandit king. Theo Dowglass is a gifted musical theatre actor, hilarious and compelling throughout, and delighting vocally and in dance. Lycett played the stereotypical highwayman with a perfectly over-the-top verve that was, without doubt, the outstanding comic performance of the night. However, these were only the highlights of an exceptional cast who were all strong, funny, and generous performers.
The tone of the show was well-managed by the directing and creative team, led by Director Olly Stanton, Creative Producer Georgia Malkin, and Musical Director Jacob Nathenson. The show cannot help but be self-aware, relying so heavily on breaking the fourth wall, but this was carried through into the over-the-top choreography, as created by Hannah Kisiala, and exaggerated characterisations to great effect, as well as the DIY Starkid feel of the piece, captured well by the set design and stage management team. The production was cohesive and streamlined. I would only suggest that perhaps the piece was a little confused between whether it should lean more into the clean pixels of the video game aspects, or more into the DIY feel, as it seemed to commit to neither fully, sadly to its detriment. However, this did nothing to detract from the well-managed and high-energy fun of the piece as a whole, particular strengths being ‘Independence’, ‘Pays to be an Animal’ and ‘Caulk the Wagon’.
My main criticism of the piece can barely be directed at the creatives involved in the show at all, and that is of the show itself. It is difficult for a British audience to engage with the piece in its cultural setting. This is particularly true of its humour. It is true of the British that there is a preference for slightly more subtle or ironic humour. Oregon was almost painfully on the nose throughout, the worst example being ‘You Gotta Go’ at the end of the show, which was saved only by Dowglass’ stellar attempts to break up the otherwise relentless and wearing toilet humour. The creative team’s decision to lean further into the video game aspects was a strong step to giving us a point of access to the story but could not erase the sometimes repetitive and often overly simplistic comedy of the piece. The quality of the show was far overshadowed by the strength of the creatives involved.
However, this production value was immense. The number of technicians in the programme, led by Charlotte Beech, is justified in the execution of Oscar Scott’s tasteful, comic, and well-considered lighting design, which came into its own, particularly in its use of spots, and during ‘Dysentery World’ and ‘When the World’s At Stake’. The sound was well-managed throughout by Amy Rettke-Grover, and the band were also excellent.
The Trail to Oregon is an enjoyable and consistently high-energy performance with a fantastic and hard-working cast and crew. The profits go to charity, as ever with Ooook!, which makes the trip to Mark Hillery a tempting notion, and, exactly as advertised, was a much-enjoyed break from exam season drudgery which I would recommend to both musical theatre enthusiasts and cynics.
Image Credit: Ooook! Productions