“might not be a musical revolution, but it is a confident, fresh, and well-crafted show”
Adam Lenson is on a mission. Under his new production company, he’s determined to foster a whole generation of British musicals that challenge and revolutionise the form, and Stages is the first musical to be produced under that label. So, understandably, Lenson and writer/lyricist/composer Christian Czornyj must have quite a lot riding on its success – but does Stages set the bar for a new era of musicals?
The show chiefly follows teen technophile Aiden (Max Alexander-Taylor) as his life and family are thrown into disarray when his mum, Alice (Anna-Jane Casey), is diagnosed with cancer. Aiden, as well as his sister Ellie (Aitch Wylie) and father Owen (Andrew Langtree) all struggle to come to terms with the notion of losing Alice, and with the concept of not having control. This theme is taken a step further by ostensibly putting control in the audience’s hands – there are a number of moments where the audience are given the option between two different possibilities which are voted on with coloured cards. These choices range from trivial, such as what colour hoodie Aiden wears, to deeply impactful, such as whether Alice should receive treatment, and initially give the audience a sense of real agency in the story, although this is then unfortunately taken away by an unexpected plot development.
Stages goes in hard on its inspiration from video games – the music is comprised entirely of 8-bit chiptune sounds, and the back wall of the set (Libby Todd) is a video screen that generates pixellated portrayals of the setting or of relevant text. It’s a bold, creative, and characterful choice that pays off through intuitive but unobtrusive storytelling. The songs, too, contribute greatly to the thematic choices the show makes – the music will remind you of different levels of your favourite games growing up, from the tranquil tracks that’d usually involve some sort of mystical forest, to tense boss battle-esque music. Perhaps a few too many numbers favour the former style, but it’s such a unique timbre that you won’t tire of it. All the cast also deliver stellar vocals under the supervision of Tamara Saringer, with some particularly beautiful harmonies on display.
The individual performances are equally excellent, with Wylie standing out in creating an idiosyncratic and relatable older sister, and Alexander-Taylor bringing an engrossing physicality to Aiden. It feels as though the actors are sometimes wishing for a little more to chew on, as the script and lyrics stray into being a bit too simple and repetitive at times, but Lenson’s direction knows how to find the heart of every moment. Stages might not be a musical revolution, but it is a confident, fresh, and well-crafted show that delivers its narrative in a new and exciting way.
“The punk ethic is there but not authentic enough to make us root for these supposed desperados”
There are many famous people who continue to live with us through their work, none of whom could have known how famous they would become posthumously. Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Johannes Vermeer, writers Franz Kafka, Edgar Allen Poe and John Keats, the Italian astronomer Galileo (who had to wait three centuries before his theories were accepted) and even J.S. Bach was little known in his own lifetime.
The creators of “Wasted”, the new musical at Southwark Playhouse, are adding the Brontë sisters to the canon, the title of which suggests that the three sisters and their often overlooked brother never achieved the recognition they sought nor found their true vocation. Hence, they believed their lives were ‘wasted’. We will never know if this was a real concern to the siblings two centuries ago, but the writers here drum home the imagined anxieties with a mixture of teenage angst and prophetic irony.
Part gig and part rock documentary, Christopher Ash’s music and Carl Miller’s book chart the struggles, frustrations and heartbreaks of Charlotte, Emily, Anne and their brother Branwell. A four-piece band form the backdrop while Libby Todd’s effective use of flight cases and sheet music create the set, reinforcing the rock theme. With hand held mics, the strong cast of four are the lead singers, imbued with a New Wave tension as they sing about being “stuck in this dump” and “we want to write”. The punk ethic is there but not authentic enough to make us root for these supposed desperados.
Although the narrative is often a touch too quaint to comfortably sit with the style of the songs, the cast do pull off the numbers with an anarchic self-possession. And you can detect a rock band’s politics permeating the foursome. Natasha Barnes’ Charlotte is pretty much the lead here; the strong contender in control, who goes onto a successful solo career. She does, after all, outlive her sisters. Siobhan Athwal gives Emily the tortured soul treatment; emotional and wayward while Molly Lynch, as Anne, is the quiet one who nevertheless is the one who comes across as the most interesting. Not to be outdone by this feminine trio, Matthew Jacobs Morgan holds his own and, even if historically Branwell fell by the wayside, Morgan certainly keeps up with the girls here.
All four sing exquisitely and they do wonders to shake off the dusty image of the Brontë family. The rock score reminds us how radical and visionary they were, yet the punch is weakened by stretching the point to its limit. And many of the songs are far too long, which does lessen the poignancy and the power of the material. Likewise, Adam Lenson’s dynamic direction is diluted in a show that does overrun its natural course. Some ruthless editing is needed for it to truly echo the characters who lived fast and died young.