“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:
“in a packed space, on a tiny runway stage, and with a very green excitable cast, Anyone Can Whistle hits all the right notes”
If a play hasn’t seen a main stage since its inception in the ‘60s, running for only twelve previews and nine performances before closing, what does that mean? And a Sondheim no less. Perhaps he was just so ahead of his time, the audience couldn’t appreciate his brilliance? Or, more likely, was it just not his best, the fly in the ointment of an otherwise flawless career?
Directed by Georgie Rankcom, Anyone Can Whistle is certainly an oddball of a musical. The plot is absurd and slightly over-complicated; the music is often stubbornly un-catchy, and crammed with lyrical mouthfuls; it just feels a bit messy for such behemoths as Sondheim and Laurents. But perhaps because the Southwark Playhouse’s production is necessarily smaller than a full west-end staging, the chaos feels magnified, almost guerrilla in energy, and you know what? It works.
Not wasting any time, the plot gets going from the first note. Greedy, corrupt mayoress Cora Hoover Hooper (Alex Young) is looking to make some quick cash, and her trusty sycophant Comptroller Schub (Danny Lane) has come up with a plan: Fake a miracle and sell tickets for the honour of seeing it.
It feels like Alex Young originated her role, she’s so perfect for it. Mincing around in a fuchsia pink fascinator and matching blazer, she’s a perfect toad, caring not a jot for her townsfolk and having a glorious time of her own. Sporting razor-sharp comic timing, she also has a spectacular voice, seemingly making very little effort to reach big rich notes after Sondheim’s trademark long breathless singing rants. Young and Lane have a really gross, potent chemistry as they plot and scheme, and in a strange twist you do find yourself almost rooting for them in the end.
The rest of the cast give off a naïve optimism, as though they’re just thrilled to be invited; indeed, for Jordan Broatch, playing J. Bowden Hapgood, the sort-of saviour of the day, this is their professional debut. On occasion I catch them grinning sweetly when the focus is elsewhere on stage, soaking it all in. For nearly any other performance this would be wildly unprofessional, but Hapgood is a doomed idealist and so it’s perfectly suiting to have someone so wide-eyed for the part.
Chrystine Symone, playing Nurse Fay Apple, the no-nonsense do-gooder, often comes across as very nervous, which she needn’t be: she has the most fantastic voice, singing honestly and without flourish in her low notes, and absolutely soaring in her top register.
Considering how little the stage is- a slender runway dividing the auditorium in two- choreographer Lisa Stevens really packs it in. I especially enjoy the little number between Hapgood and the mayoress, as they frug and bunny-hop seductively in unison.
Cory Shipp’s design reflects the cast’s unadulterated joyousness, with wild ‘70s prints and garish clashing colours. And Alex Musgrave’s lighting design takes a similar cue, making liberal use of the disco ball, along with bold washes of pink and blue.
As ever at the Southwark, the live band, led by Natalie Pound, is spot on, never missing a beat but somehow promoting that same sense of purposeful chaos. There is a slight problem with levels at the beginning, and with Sondheim being so lyric-heavy, there are moments when quieter percussion or, one supposes, much, much louder vocals would be helpful. But ultimately, it’s all a good fun mess anyhow, and the plot points make themselves known eventually.
It’s understandable that in a huge auditorium, having spent wild amounts of money on production, everyone in their black-tie best, a musical like this would feel underwhelming and confusing. But in a packed space, on a tiny runway stage, and with a very green excitable cast, Anyone Can Whistle hits all the right notes.