“it was utterly impossible to not be moved by the all-consuming singing of Alexia Khadime”
Scott Alan’s new song cycle, The Distance You Have Come, at the Cockpit Theatre is an apologetically raw evening, of six actors, 26 songs and a lot of heartstrings pulled out. It was, at first, difficult to see what held the individual songs together (besides an obvious love of American musical theatre) but the powerful performances and commitment to unadulterated emotion got us there in the end.
The songs were stapled together by a, sometimes contrived, shared setting in a park and their theme of achievement of any type. Two men fell in love and became fathers. A young recovering alcoholic overcame the split with his partner. Two women left one another as one became a surrogate mother and the other stalked the park looking for men to sing songs with. The show was redemptive as characters moved from cynicism and despair to success and fulfilment, but ‘redemption’ was less the strong intellectual glue needed and more attractive wallpaper over the thematic gaps between songs.
The performances were almighty as individual efforts, leaving no meaningful gaze ungazed and no high note unhit. This young cast clearly has great futures ahead of them (and some already have great pasts behind them), with commitment, energy and vocal talent oozing out of each pore. Jodie Jacobs (Anna) stood out as a respite from the High School Musical style which is all pervasive in a musical theatre and it was utterly impossible to not be moved by the all-consuming singing of Alexia Khadime (Laura).
With these invincible performances, the show was occasionally let down by strange decisions and a few lazy choices, lyrically and on stage. Cliche was the name of the game as an ‘alcoholic’ sipped from a hip flask and was tormented by masked and hooded abstract figures. The set was a strange fusion of nature and bougie restaurant with a giant leaf on the floor, a tree above and bare filament light bulbs hanging from the rafters. Lyrically this show pushed the boundaries of where normal musical theatre cheese meets lazy cliche with lines like ‘A home is where the heart is meant to be and you’ll always have a home inside of me’ feeling empty and tired. It was a shame to see small issues not dealt with (it wasn’t the first night) with actors performing to empty corners and the speakers consistently buzzing over one particularly popular high note.
This all said, The Distance You Have Come is not a show to be dissected or understood, but a show which enjoyably surrounds you with enough emotion that you can’t help but go along with it. The themes were contrived and the technical aspects were loose, but the exposed and unapologetic emotion of the performance culminated in a predictably moving evening.
“built on its flawless singing and orchestrations, and the set can afford to be barely an afterthought”
Perhaps there’s no bad time for a revival of The King and I. Amid themes of relations between cultures, what it means to be a woman and what it means to lead, this story and the questions that it asks may never cease to be relevant. That said, if no time is the wrong time, this feels like the perfect moment. As the world continues to turn outside the walls of the London Palladium, the King’s frustrated cry of “sometimes I wish I could build a wall around all of Siam” and his referral to Anna as a “difficult woman” hold onto a grim relevance that Rodgers and Hammerstein couldn’t have predicted.
For all its new pertinence, it’s clear that the London revival is making a great effort to maintain the classic nostalgia, with very few changes from the Broadway version, even down to having the same two brilliant actors in the lead roles. Kelli O’Hara’s portrayal of Anna makes it blatantly obvious how she has become so iconic in this role. She has a light and unassuming presence on stage, but underneath this there lies great power and tenacity. She perfectly captures the constant balancing act of existing as a Victorian widow, living outside the safety of the British empire. However, she doesn’t hide the exhaustion that this would bring: the moments when Anna’s carefully curated image cracks are some of the piece’s most powerful.
Likewise, Ken Watanabe’s King absolutely fills the stage by himself. While a few of his words were lost at times, this only served to remind me that the character was functioning in his second language and was constantly struggling to be understood, on both linguistic and personal levels.
When reviving this musical, an awareness of its history is key. When both the original Broadway and film casts were all too white, approaching this version with sensitivity is absolutely paramount and was clearly at the forefront of the creative team’s minds. For example, by staging a number with the King’s wives navigating the horrors of Victorian dresses before turning to look straight at the audience and inform us, directly and with obvious anger, that “Western people funny”, the balance of power is changed. We as a Western audience are accused of hypocrisy and self aggrandising, and this criticism cannot be ignored.
It would be impossible to discuss this musical without at least touching on the ensemble. Flitting easily between roles with an ever present energy, their talent is unmistakable. At times the sets felt as if they jumped between the opulence of the castle and something a little more unfinished, but this piece really doesn’t rely on the set. It’s built on its flawless singing and orchestrations, and the set can afford to be barely an afterthought.
While this revival had relatively little new to offer, the overwhelming sense is that they know what works, and they’re happy to stick to it.