Reviewed – 29th July 2022
“The action plays and replays in LJ’s bar – Justin Williams’ impressive centrepiece – with the six strong cast giving fine acting performances”
We are in LJ’s bar. It is 7pm on Monday 14th (the month is unspecified). For the next two and a half hours it is 7pm on Monday 14th six times. One day is played out in the lives of the six characters, each time from their own perspective. It is a clever idea. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. There are inevitably going to be comparisons to ‘Groundhog Day’, but “Tasting Notes” owes more to Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Norman Conquests’ trilogy. With perhaps a touch of ‘Sliding Doors’ thrown in. As we witness the action from the various mind’s eyes, the full picture is slowly revealed. Unfortunately, too slowly.
LJ (Nancy Zamit) runs the bar. She lives in the bar, invariably sleeping there overnight. She loves it, but she tires of it and there is nothing else. Not so for her staff. A waitress is never just a waitress. Maggie (Charlie Ryall – who also co-wrote the book and lyrics with composer Richard Baker) serves drinks in between going off to another soul-destroying audition. Her torch burns for her colleague Oliver (Niall Ransome). Despite the mutual attraction, Oliver is more anxious to get home to his cat (never trust a cat person!). Eszter (Wendy Morgan) spends more time cleaning up after her wayward son than she does washing the dirty glasses. George (Sam Kipling) doesn’t let little things like punctuality get in the way of his extracurricular activities. If only he would set his watch to regular customer, Joe (Stephen Hoo), who’s through the door at opening time, ready to drink away his memories.
The action plays and replays in LJ’s bar – Justin Williams’ impressive centrepiece – with the six strong cast giving fine acting performances. Ryall has an ear for dialogue, which flows naturally; the initial mundanity belying the subsequent significance and dark twists. Baker has a similar way with words, crafting some clever lyrics into the dozen or so songs that flesh out the book. But the show needs condensing rather than fattening up. However good the concept may be, rewinding half a dozen times really starts to dilute the effect, and the ideas lose their taste. We feel like we’re watching a drama game, or some serious ‘actioning’ in the rehearsal room.
The second act does drag, until the dark, unexpected twist jolts us. We wish we could have reached it much sooner, despite the welcome distraction of lesser revelations on the way. This is a work in progress; or a pitch. Except that we are being given the whole menu instead of a taste of what it could be. There is a lot left on the plate, which goes to waste. Ryall’s script is clever, but there are too many notes that cloud the overall flavour. And one questions the decision as to why it needed to be a musical (although everything seems to be a musical nowadays). Baker’s score, more of a song cycle, matches the craftmanship of his lyricism but is too easy on the ear. And the cast, despite their solid grip on the language and characterisation of the piece, invariably find the musical demands beyond their grasp. Which is surprising at a venue noted for the quality of its musical theatre.
“Tasting Notes” has shades of “Friends” or “Cheers”, although with more contrast: it can be funnier, and it certainly gets darker. But ultimately it feels like you’re being talked into having one more for the road; when you’ve already had enough.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Chris Marchant
Southwark Playhouse until 27th August
Take a look at some other shows previously reviewed at this venue: