Pieces of String
Mercury Theatre Colchester
Reviewed – 27th April 2018
“Joel Harper-Jackson in particular stood out with a tangibly human performance full of intensity and heart”
If I had gone into Pieces Of String knowing that its earliest inspiration to writer Gus Gowland came from seeing stories of being gay on the WWII frontlines, I would have expected an entirely different animal to the rounded, sentimental and sharply funny original musical that I watched last night. Although yes, that original concept is certainly apparent.
This show came together via embryonic shorter pieces by Gowland alongside musical development theatre company Perfect Pitch. It isn’t easy to come up with a pithy summary that gives justice to all the elements blended here but you can count on themes of love, family, taboo and grief, held together with some deeply sardonic laughs and a couple of stunning vocal performances to boot. The action takes place on the day of a funeral with various memories and trinket boxes coming to life to tell the story of the deceased while his family try, and fail, to get along nicely as they pack up his life for the last time.
Cue then some neatly spliced flashbacks and surprise appearances around the ragged family dynamic of surviving daughter Jane, played by a suitably taught Carol Starks. She could have been a piece of string herself, tightly wound and ready to snap at any point as the somewhat harshly written mother of two, juggling her discomfort of accepting her gay adult son and closing down the life of her father whom we discover was not a particularly warm aspect of her own childhood. The part of Jane is something of a harpy, an easily dislikable target played exceptionally by Starks, but I can’t help but wonder how much more she would have made of it had it been written slightly less two dimensionally.
Casting has been well allocated, and you will find an unsurprising history of theatre credits for all members who do the production and themselves proud and would be equally well placed in larger scale and more established shows. Joel Harper-Jackson in particular stood out with a tangibly human performance full of intensity and heart as the soldier Tom.
The songs weave into the action fairly fluidly though this is definitely a piece of musical theatre in the traditional sense rather than a play with songs. Act one’s Standing In The Shadows can be called nothing less than an absolute belter of a show tune, which would be possibly worthy to a Les Miserables comparison.
The set (Fin Redshaw) is quite gloriously nostalgic and I would challenge anyone not to look fondly on the retro furniture and decor that give a classic and shabby backdrop at the same time, mirroring the past and present in the action, the chintzy facade of propriety and the decay beneath it. Clever lighting (Ben Cracknell) provides the required battlefield feel for the trenches scenes simply but very effectively and deserves mention. I must also heap praise on movement director Ellen Kane as the choreography in Pieces of String is outstanding. The frequent and fluid physical movements of the cast flow gracefully to allow the gentle jumps between past and present to become truly elegant. Really beautifully done.
The performance I attended received a standing ovation which is understandable both due to the great work of cast and production team alike and also perhaps due to addressing the currently socially relevant themes of equality and toxic masculinity without ever being preachy or overtly judgmental on societal attitudes of then or now.
I can’t quite give it five stars, due to a few niggles I found with the characters of Jane and oh so typically gobby teenager Gemma, commendably played by Ella Dunlop but it felt written only to serve the purpose of having bit of youth and sarcasm to round out the cast. I also can’t quite reconcile myself to the timeline of the family in question. Pernickety souls such as myself may struggle to make it work without an additional generation in there somewhere but that’s a very small detail that I will shut up about promptly.
It was a pleasure to see Gus Gowland on stage at the end of the show, he seems to justly proud of his baby here, having taken on the creation of book (basically the script), lyrics and music like a true pro, despite being in the early stages of what I hope will be a substantial career in the arts. We need voices like his.
In parting, I have to say that for regional theatre Pieces of String is almost perfect, and I would thoroughly recommend catching it if you can.
Reviewed by Jenna Barton
Photography by Robert Workman
Pieces of String
Mercury Theatre Colchester until 5th May
Featuring Craig Mather