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I’ve never been a fan of musical theatre.

“Rock operas”, Gilbert & Sullivan, pantomime and Broadway are all equally lost on me.

While admittedly something of a lifelong aficionado of the grand arte Italiana that is opera, anything falling short of Verdi and his arguable peers immediately sets bells ringing on the camp meter, with the tongue in cheek sappiness and artificiality of the endeavor subsuming any measure of merit to my eyes (or more to the point, ears).  I just can’t hear the stuff for cringing in involuntary and intrinsic revulsion.

So fans of this sort of thing will have to bear with me in noting that things start off on a decidedly wrong foot this season with Mask of Tragedy and Night of 1000 Stars scribe James Goss (and apparent musical theatre man Howard Carter’s) Encore of the Scorchies.

Now, I missed out on the Scorchies’ prior performance in the Companion Chronicles, but given their curtain call in what remains one of our two favorite Big Finish audio series (alongside the likeable upstart Pathfinder Chronicles), I’m assuming fellow newcomers haven’t missed all that much.  Or in other words, if Henry Gordon Jago, Prof. George Litefoot, Ellie Higson and Sgt. Quick can’t save the enterprise, I feel pretty safe in calling it a lost cause.

“It’s not fair…I never get a truly even share, and I end up feeling bad I’m just a spare part every time/
the adventure’s nearly finished and I’ve hardly said a line, you two gents have all the fun, while I get left behind/
well not today, if it’s alright, I’m here to save mankind!”

At the conclusion of Series Seven, our erstwhile theatrical impresario engaged the services of a group of singing puppets whose apparent lack of mummery or string-manipulating puppeteer made them an easy headline prospect.  Picking up where things left off, the new stars of the New Regency Theatre have begun to enact their dastardly plan to turn people into puppets and make the transmigration from felt to flesh.  Not a lot happens, but much singing ensues.

Of note here are the surprising singing voices of Lisa Bowerman’s Ellie and Sarah Lark’s Nancy, who despite having to affect strong Cockney accents throughout, prove more than capable of carrying a tune.  I don’t recall Trevor Baxter’s Litefoot as ever actually taking a turn at the mike, but we do get quite a bit of Christopher Benjamin’s Jago warbling his way through one ditty after another – whether this is a good thing or no I leave to the theatrical connoisseur (as quite honestly, most musical theater sounds like so much top of the lungs caterwauling to these ears), but suffice to say, it’s probably best our beloved blustering boozehound sticks to the alliterative ballyhoo and carny barking…much love to you, Christopher, but hoo boy!

“Gentlemen, treat the ladies to a sight they will never be able to stop talking about…”
“oh!  Mr. Jago, can I have a go?”
“err…let’s wait here awhile and see what happens.”
“(disgusted) you’re just saying that cause you don’t want to shell out an ha’penny!”

“It seems to me that it’s all got something to do with those machines.  The people who look into them get…confused, somehow.”
“Good thing you wouldn’t let me look into one, Mr. Jago!”
“hmm?  Oh, yes…yes, I was concerned for your welfare!”

Things thankfully return to a more familiar milieu with The Backwards Men by Mahogany Murderers scribe Andy Lane.  With Londoners from all walks of life turning into loiterers en masse, it’s clear there’s something strange going on…particularly as they become decidedly violent when ordered to disperse.  Is it some sort of revolutionary statement?  Or something far more sinister?  And what does all this have to do with the freakshow recently established by one Mr. Wednesday?

Gus Brown delivers a particularly oily Mr. Wednesday, and the episode offers some amusingly welcome character interplay between Christopher Benjamin and Lisa Bowerman, as they stake out the “World of Wonders”.  Trevor Baxter gets an unusual chance to play a relatively straightforward heroic role, there’s aliens and global if not intergalactic menace and enough gaslight grotesquerie to remind listeners of just why Jago & Litefoot is such a unique series, crossing Conan Doyle and Sax Rohmer with the fantastically oriented science fiction of the series from which the characters originate, Doctor Who.

There are flaws, of course – Litefoot submits all too willingly (if not naively) to symbiotic possession by alien detective Arioch (Ian Burford) and Wednesday’s motivations and method are a bit shaky.  But even so, this is certainly the best offering of the current season, and should leave fellow fans of our favorite Victorian gents well pleased in the end.

“Strikes me we’re very lucky to have an establishment like this for a base of operations – I doubt any other crime fighting partnerships are as fortunate…

Holmes and Waston, for instance.  Stuck at those rented rooms of his.  He has tea on tap courtesy of his longsuffering landlady, but that’s about it.  Don’t know why Conan Doyle doesn’t let them nip down the boozer every once in awhile…”

Next up, our intrepid interrogators of incredible incident return to their preferred place of assignation and find themselves involved in an investigation of a series of sightings of an unusual underwater anomaly, in reluctant partnership with a wharf rat bag lady (Flaminia Cinque) in Jago & Litefoot & Patsy.

“You don’t give credence to these tales, surely!”
“It’s been seen by a bally lot of people, you know…all those riverworkers, and half the regulars in here.”
“Exactly!  Fishermen and inebriates.  Neither group exactly renowned for the reliability of their reports.”

Authors Simon Barnard and Paul Morris (of last season’s Murder at Moorsey Manor) display an appropriate and quite recent familiarity with our leads and their particular peccadilloes that Lane (who doesn’t appear to have written for the duo since that first pivotal Companion Chronicles adventure) seems to have been reaching for somewhat.

That said, despite some rather amusing bits of banter peppered throughout, the story itself is a tad lacking and their choice of companion this time around questionable to say the least.  Did a local performance of Sweeney Todd lose an extra or something?  I kept expecting Patsy to offer some seaman the opportunity to get their anchor stoutly harbored…

Andrew Greenough delivers a suitably salty Jeremiah Castle, and Benjamin and Baxter do their damnedest, but it’s clear that this would have been a more amenable offering with Ellie and/or Quick in place of their gin soaked guest star, whose raspy degenerate is all too well delivered for listener comfort.

Of course, that may have been a deliberate consideration, given the series closer, Justin Richards’ Higson & Quick.

“I can’t stop, just brought along someone to see you.”
“To see us?  But whom?”
“(shuddering moan) ooooh, noooo…”
“oh, no, it can’t be…”
“…the smell…not sure my stomach can…”

With Jago & Litefoot taking a temporary trip to the dark side, the sidekicks’ sidekicks and supporting cast take center stage to save the day.  Unbelievably, our homeless harridan Patsy returns to play a rather pivotal part in the problem at hand, garnering herself enough airtime as to be more of a “lead” than the listed headliners (whose prominence occurs somewhat late in the proceedings)!

While there’s certainly some amusing bits and one liners to be found, with a title like Higson & Quick, this listener for one was certainly expecting a far more entertaining romp from two equally beloved supporting cast members.  Sadly, this wasn’t exactly the case.

Without giving too much of the story away, suffice to say that the bulk of the story does in fact still revolve around our unlikely series leads, with (as noted with some measure of disdain) their new bag lady pal taking a fairly even share of the virtual screentime, and the listed leads shunted off to the side, even in a story specifically named after them!

The four leads are as delightful as ever, but it has to be said that season 8 proves to be something of an oddity in the annals of the Jago & Litefoot canon.  While remaining firmly ensconced in their established time and place (unlike, say, Series Five or the immediately preceding adventures with Colin Baker), many of the respective writers involved this season appear hellbent on pushing the boundaries and taking our Victorian adventurers outside their comfort zone, with grating new characters, odder than usual antagonists and yet another foray into straight up musical theatre territory (however appropriate that may appear, given Jago’s professional positioning).

Look, it’s still one of the most enjoyable, comfortable and amusing Who-related lines Big Finish has to offer, with elements used to similar if somewhat lesser effect in likemindedly enjoyable seriocomic lines such as Iris Wildthyme and The Scarifyers and two indisputably wonderful leads, given extra weight by a pair of equally loveable supporting cast members.

But if you’re a newcomer to the line, take the advice of a longtime fan.  While certainly more than acceptable on the whole, this particular series really isn’t the one to kick off with.