“the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness.”
It seems an age ago now but back in March, when the New York Governor ordered Broadway’s theatres to close as the coronavirus pandemic spread through the city, there was still the feeling in London that ‘it won’t happen to us’. But lo and behold, four days later, the Prime Minister’s statement ensured our theatres followed suit. The mass exodus of London’s West End and the fringe left an eerie silence that filled the playhouses, as they started to gather dust. Many, like Southwark Playhouse, remained frozen in time; the empty music stands, props on the stage floor and, lit only by the ghost light; the centre-piece grand piano, silent on the now-motionless revolve. Waiting.
The waiting was longer than we initially thought, but seven months later to the day, and leading the way in the reopening of our theatres, Katy Lipson (in association with Edward Prophet and People Entertainment Group) kicks off where we left off with Jason Robert Brown’s powerful two-hander, “The Last Five Years”. Despite the plexiglass and socially distant seating, as the first notes fill the auditorium it feels like the intervening months never really happened. In tune with the time-twisting concept of the piece the audience are transported back to March of this year into an alternative existence wherein this nightmare may never have happened. The energy of Oli Higginson and Molly Lynch is undimmed and the relish with which these two outstanding performers reprise their roles is a joy to witness. They tell us the story, through song, of two lovers, Jamie and Cathy, as they travel through five years of their relationship. He is moving forward while she proceeds in reverse. They meet in the middle, fleetingly, on their wedding day.
It is a clever device that gives us insider knowledge. We know how it is going to end right from the start and are free to concentrate on the journey each character makes. The downside is the inevitable predictability, but the focus is on Brown’s compositions; all beautifully crafted, with a range of styles; yet connected with common threads and leitmotifs. And director Jonathan O’Boyle has introduced a third character to the narrative: the grand piano that takes centre stage, around which Jamie and Cathy circle, powerless against its gravitational pull. Matching Higginson’s and Lynch’s faultless interpretation of the characters is their musicianship; using the piano as an emotional relay, often passing the baton between the bars of a tune. The opening “Still Hurting” shows off Lynch’s soaring and searing vocals in a heart-wrenching moment of resigned pain, while Higginson’s optimistic belt of “Moving Too Fast” encapsulates Jamie’s joyful optimism. Ninety minutes later Higginson beautifully mourns the ending of their story in “Nobody Needs to Know” while Lynch has usurped his dreams for the buoyant “I Can Do Better Than That”.
In between, the pitch shifts are perfect as the two advance and retreat along their own paths. Ironically, that is the show’s one minor flaw. It is easy to forget, when the actors are sometimes only inches apart, that they are years apart in the narrative. It often feels that we are merely witnessing a couple who just aren’t suited to each other at all. He’s looking forward, she’s looking back, and this unintentional self-centredness occasionally leaves us cold. It is only when you make a conscious effort to return to the theme that you reconnect.
Yet the performances consistently manage to sweep this slight distraction away with their charisma and talent. Backed by the sheer energy of Musical Director, George Dyer, and the five-piece band, we are spellbound, and our belief in the magic of musical theatre is unquestionably reaffirmed.
“boldly aims to define the new normal, but unfortunately you won’t find anything here that you wouldn’t get from just listening to the album”
Well, here we are in ‘the new normal’. With so many theatres closed indefinitely while social distancing remains untenable, many venues and companies have been finding new ways to adapt. There have been plays performed via Zoom and actors playing to empty auditoriums in the Old Vic as producers scramble to safely recreate the theatrical experience. Musicals, of course, present an even greater challenge with having to sync the vocal performances with the musicians, which events such as Signal Online have made huge steps forward in. But does this production of Songs For A New World fit into, well, the new world?
It certainly frames itself as such. The show opens with newsreel footage of the likes of Rufus Norris and Nicholas Hytner speaking on the state of the industry post-COVID, panning through sombre shots of closed theatres, while the four performers (Rachel John, Ramin Karimloo, Cedric Neal, and Rachel Tucker) sing about being on the precipice of a moment when everything can change. It’s fitting, if a little heavy-handed. Songs For A New World is a little unconventional in its structure in that it’s more of a song cycle than a musical: the sixteen songs written by Jason Robert Brown are all self-contained narratives working within that same theme of the opening number – that of people hitting the point where vital choices have to be made. As such, there’s no over-arching story to tamper with by recontextualising the show through the lens of current affairs.
However, Brown’s USP is that he’s a very narrative lyricist. A lot of the songs feature characters in specific circumstances making those aforementioned vital choices, and so there are detailed stories that need to be told within the songs. The newsreel gimmick is repeated often throughout the show, which can sometimes flatten and obfuscate the nuance of the material. ‘On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship’ is intercut with footage of Black Lives Matter protests, for example, which the song was clearly not written for as lyrics about not being strong enough seem to undermine the defiance and urgency on display in the footage. Setting this precedent, ‘The River Won’t Flow’ features video of Trump being confrontational at a press conference at its start, which then has no bearing on the song itself. This poorly thought out recontextualisation ultimately rings hollow and meaningless.
If you can ignore that, however, then what remains is four exceptional performers (with an exquisite guest appearance from new graduate Shem Omari James in ‘Steam Train’) with seismically beautiful vocals and hair-raising harmonies in here. All of Brown’s deliciously complex music is given a pulsing energy by Josh Winstone’s musical direction, although Séimí Campbell’s direction doesn’t seem to trust the actors enough at times, giving them too much ‘business’ to do. The number of times the actors pointlessly fondle props or hold drinks during a song is baffling, taking the focus away from the arcs of the songs themselves, although standout performances such as John’s ‘I’m Not Afraid Of Anything’, Tucker’s ‘Surabaya-Santa’, and John and Karimloo’s duet ‘I’d Give It All For You’ manage to transcend those trappings.
For a show about making choices, Lambert Jackson’s production of Songs For A New World seems strangely on the fence: its use of intercutting with real world footage seems like it’s trying to attain a cinematic quality, yet the performers are self-recording in their kitchens and lounges which creates a dissonance with that. Meanwhile, the direction makes broad general strokes of the zeitgeist on material that demands nuance and specificity. This production boldly aims to define the new normal, but unfortunately you won’t find anything here that you wouldn’t get from just listening to the album.