“a wonderfully crafted musical that ultimately surrenders itself to its audience”
“One small step for man” or “one small step for a man”? Whatever Neil Armstrong said, it’s etched in humanity’s collective memory forever more. People prefer the poetic balance of the former even though Armstrong insisted he said the latter – but there is no debate that Apollo 11’s moon landing over fifty years ago was “one giant leap for mankind”.
Chicago housewife Diana (Wendi Peters) was watching the blurred, monochrome images on her television screen on that night in the summer of 1969, whilst also gazing at the same crescent moon hanging in the night sky, framed by the confines of her suburban window. In an epiphanic moment she sees her own life, with her husband Gerard, as humdrum, a series of small steps. She wants her own giant leap and, unable to resist the tidal force of the moment, she wanders out into the night with just her purse and her innocence.
‘The Grey Area’ Theatre Company’s new musical is a charming and intimate journey through the mind of a conflicted woman. She is simultaneously awestruck yet weary; an ingénue who never thought she would live so long. Wendi Peters gives a fine and forceful performance that exposes the crystallised layers of her character. She winds up at the ‘Hotel Constellation’, blows a week’s grocery money on one night and tosses away her diary, all the while being admonished by the voices in her head. Rebecca McKinnis, Jordan Frazier and Phil Adèle represent these voices, as well as switching into the peripheral characters that surround Diana’s life, old and new. McKinnis, as Diana’s sophisticated but morally dubious neighbour deftly morphs into the surly hotel receptionist. Similarly, Adèle, another friend and neighbour in Diana’s previous life becomes a Vietnam veteran clouding his trauma in dope-smoke. Frazier’s hotel maid is the guiding hand that guides Diana through the maze of her new experiences. Far from being supporting characters or the chorus, their studied and varied performances are integral to the shifting tides of the show.
Neil Bartram’s score is, at times, a touch too gentle but like Brian Hill’s book, it isn’t shooting for the moon. There is an underlying reserve that is refined rather than flamboyant. Certain numbers stand out, such as “The Invisible Man” or “Is That Me?” – which oozes with a universal sadness. Peters mines the emotional gravity of the songs until there is very little left.
“You Are Here” is an odyssey and an oddity. It basks a lot of the time in the Sea of Tranquility, although a final twist towards the end of the show does propel it into another orbit, and the motifs and meanings take on a whole new shape. It’s a wonderfully crafted musical that ultimately surrenders itself to its audience. It is a voyage of self-discovery; whether we take optimism and hope with us, or grief and regret, is up to us. Whether a giant leap or a small step, it is a welcome return to live performance as we make our own journeys into the night again to London’s theatreland.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Callum Heinrich
You Are Here
Southwark Playhouse until 12th June
Additionally there are two live stream performances on Saturday 22nd May at 3pm and 7.30pm
“The cast of young performers are amazing, holding the stage and the attention of the children and adults in the audience alike.”
Once upon a time, a long, long, long time ago, while I was growing up I spent a lot of holidays in Italy. I’d seen the animated film but it wasn’t until I visited Pinocchio’s House in a small theme park in Rimini that I realised how well loved this traditional Italian story was. In Carlo Collodi’s classic tale I encountered a slightly more fable-esque version of the story, where misbehaving children feel real fear and encounter many dangers. I hope I’m not spoiling anyone’s fun when I say that the tale of Pinocchio starts out both wistful and sad, rampages through hope, fear and peril, but ends happily ever after!
Since those heady, hot summers the theme park has grown and expanded, and so have I. I’ve seen a few different versions of the folk tale over the years but hadn’t thought much about it recently until the opportunity to see the ‘all singing/all dancing’ production showcasing up-and-coming talent from The British Theatre Academy arose… so I jumped at the chance!
Condensed by Brian Hill, the play manages to keep the action moving without feeling hurried but doesn’t delve deep into the rollercoaster of emotion the story holds, however I will put that down to the 75 minute running time and the child friendly nature of the production.
Starting with shadow puppetry the story of toymaker Geppetto and the loss of his wife become almost a prologue, before the storytelling swiftly moves to real Geppetto (played by Martin Neely) on stage, lonely and wishing for a child of his own, he carves a puppet boy from wood. A puppet who can speak and move and hopefully become his family.
Wanting desperately to be human the boy, Pinocchio, reels from one bad decision to another, choosing adventure over his father’s wishes. He finds himself drawn to the livelier children of the town, then into a circus, before he is defrauded of all the money he has, sees his friends become donkeys and even ends up swallowed by a whale.
The Narrator of the prologue becomes the ‘Blue Fairy’ whose frequent encounters with Pinocchio ensure the story skips along fluidly, noting his tendency to lie and choose ‘fun’ over tasks, and she guides him to a moral conclusion: an unselfish act for the love of his father that will make him real.
The principal characters are very good; the slightly manic sideshow puppeteer manages quite a sophisticated performance, as do the sly Fox and the sneaky Cat con artists (the latter steals the show). Lizzie Rees plays the Blue Fairy/Storyteller and her very powerful vocals are wonderful but do at times dominate the rest of the voices in tone and talent, and therefore occasionally seem out of place.
The music by Neil Bartram is good and during the show’s ‘big number’, in which the whole cast fills the stage, the young ensemble dance in formation with gusto and obvious enjoyment (choreographed by Anthony Whiteman).
The cast of young performers (from the British Theatre Academy) are amazing, holding the stage and the attention of the children and adults in the audience alike. Their enthusiasm and confidence is infectious. The director does an amazing job organising a cast of approximately 200 that alters on rotation for each performance (there are 17 teams). Pinocchio himself is played by two actors as he is rarely off stage, leaving only Geppetto and the Blue Fairy as permanent, non-changing cast. I have worked in classrooms for many years and sat through many school productions – this is no mean feat from Bronagh Lagan!
The musical is fun and full of energy and a great way to spend a morning or afternoon over the school summer holidays. It’s short enough to not require an interval yet long enough to make the venture into Covent Garden worth the effort. The children in the audience certainly seemed transfixed, there was minimal fuss and talking in the stalls yet half of those watching were under ten years old.
An eight year old near me asked hushed questions about what would happen next as he wriggled with anticipation in his seat. Three children behind me sat in absolute silence taking it all in. Even a toddler sat through the entire show without anyone noticing.
Everyone applauded with appreciation at the end. A family group squeezed out of the row in front of me, Granny wiping teary eyes from the school play/children’s choir effect. A couple of 4-year olds in the front row left wide eyed and smiling.
“But is he really real now?” a chatty 7-year old asked everyone on the stairs on the way out. I widened my eyes and nodded slowly when he looked at me and he grinned.