“this musical packed as much energy as any West End show I’ve attended”
In the heart of Vauxhall, Above the Stag Theatre has established itself as the only professional LGBT+ theatre in the UK with Artistic Director Peter Bull introducing some exciting productions. Romance Romance is a revival of the 1980’s Broadway original, with book and lyrics by Barry Harman and music by Keith Herrmann. Marketed as a reimagining told through the exploration of gay attraction and relationships, this two-act musical offers two very different stories both connected by the theme of love. Act One, The Little Comedy, is set in 19th Century Vienna and provides a light-hearted, farcical story of two people who upon adopting new personas fall in love. Act Two jumps forward to a contemporary setting in The Hamptons for Summer Share, which explores the complexities of love through the possibility of an affair.
First and foremost for a small production this musical packed as much energy as any West End show I’ve attended. The driving force behind this was the cast of just four performers (Ryan Anderson, Jordan Lee Davies, Alex Lodge, and Blair Robertson) who each threw themselves into this production heart and soul. Powerful performances from all but notably Ryan Anderson who brought the house down with his solo number ‘How did I end up Here?’ Some fantastic casting as the dynamic between the four was electric, and by the end of Act Two, the idea of this being a reimagining as a means to explore gay attraction is so far out of the picture, it was as if it was meant to have been written this way. Act Two really stood out because of its exploration of love, emotion and the complexities of relationships offering something we can all connect to regardless of your sexual orientation.
The direction (Steven Dexter with Summer Strallen as associate director) ensured the absolute most was made of all available space which doubled the size of the production as it burst out from every part of the stage. David Shields’ smart design allowed for the set to be transformed in front of our eyes, transporting us from Vienna to The Hamptons in a blink of an eye. Live music filled the room from upstage where the band sat playing for all to see, emphasising just how much can be achieved in a studio space. The lighting design (Jack Weir) added another layer which allowed for us to be transformed from the character’s private thoughts to new locations. The production made the most of all it had and then some.
Overall this musical was very sharp and full of life. My only wish is that it could be realised on a bigger scale as it has so much to offer. Act One offers you fun, songs, silliness and dance with Act Two bringing the heart and soul; a musical of two very different halves but with something for everything!
“The format of the show is stuffed full of comic and satirical potential”
[title of show] charts the story of writer and composer Hunter and Jeff (Michael Vinsen and Jordan Fox respectively) trying to write a musical with their friends Susan (Natalie Williams) and Heidi (Kirby Hughes) for an upcoming festival and all the trials and tribulations that accompany it. The beautifully meta aspect of the show is that Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen were actually the creatives behind [title of show], which is the musical they wrote for an upcoming festival – it’s at one point described as ‘a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical’. This provides a delicious sense of spontaneity to the way the action on stage unfolds, as all the characters are aware that they are in a musical that is being written – one character remarks that Susan has been very quiet during the scene, she responds that it’s because she didn’t have a line in the script until now. The format of the show is stuffed full of comic and satirical potential, and moments like this wring all its possibilities fully.
However, the show was originally written in 2004 and has been considerably successful, even making it to Broadway in 2008, and so the second act of the show – which charts the journey of the show following the festival – feels disjointed and not quite as polished as a result. The first act’s blend of snappy dialogue, clever commentary and engaging songs that are fully integrated with the plot and characters are in the second act replaced with a messier concoction that feels more like a play that drags out a contrived conflict between two characters and begrudgingly throws a song in every now and then until the final sequence.
Thankfully, the shortcomings in [title of show]’s writing in the latter half is made up for by stellar direction and performances throughout. Director Robert McWhir takes every opportunity to let the story and the characters shine through, ensuring that the weaker elements feel more fleshed out and that the comedy and pathos is given the full spotlight. His smart staging makes the relatively cosy space feel huge, giving the actors ample room to take advantage of – and they certainly do. Every single cast member delivers an imaginative and encapsulating performance, although Michael Vinsen is especially exemplary in the relatability, drive, and hilarity he brings to Hunter. The only shortfall is that – as the actors don’t have mics – if they are at the opposite end of the space, lyrics can occasionally be lost.
This is a shame, as the music and lyrics are often catchy and clever. Numbers such as ‘Monkeys and Playbills’, ‘Die, Vampire, Die!’, and ‘Nine People’s Favourite Thing’ are all gleefully inventive and, thanks to Oli George Rew’s expert accompaniment, feel vivid and characterful in their composition.
The sheer love of musical theatre and the process of creation that [title of show] displays will make you fall in love with it despite some missteps, and will have you leaving the theatre truly charmed, and a little more inspired in your own dreams and aspirations.