“Brown’s book and lyrics is crammed full to the brim with questions, hence the title presumably. Although curiosity is startlingly absent”
There’s a weekly feature in The Guardian’s Saturday magazine titled ‘Across the Divide’, in which two mismatched people are thrown together on a date to see if they can enjoy each other’s company. Their differences may be political, philosophical or cultural. It is sometimes entertaining, sometimes downright dull; but a pleasant diversion to accompany a cup of coffee. Imagine stretching out the general concept into a two-hour musical and you might come up with something resembling “Killing the Cat’, Warner Brown and Joshua Schmidt’s new musical, premiering at the Riverside Studios.
Maggie (Madalena Alberto) is a world-weary, successful scientific author wanting to escape fame for a while, so decides to let her care-free sister-in-law Sheila (Kluane Saunders) whisk her off to the Italian countryside. Meanwhile, hippy-dippy Heather (Molly Lynch), who talks to dead poets in her head, inexplicably decides to drag along near-total-stranger Connor (Joaquin Pedro Valdes) to the same destination. Heather is chasing culture while Connor is seeking certainty, but in a very uncertain manner. In Italy, Maggie swoons over cabbage-vending Luke (Tim Rogers) who sounds like he’s from Sydney but hankers after Hackney. Luke is a born-again spiritualist living with his sister Paula (Kluane Saunders again) who dresses for ‘Oklahoma’ but has the artful cheeky chatter from ‘Oliver’.
Brown’s book and lyrics is crammed full to the brim with questions, hence the title presumably. Although curiosity is startlingly absent. Instead, we are delivered banality and cliché. Songs about molecular science, although with sub-molecular depth, compete with love ballads and debates that turn into arguments – at times resembling those countless conversations in student digs after closing time.
There is no denying the talent and vocal power of the performers. Even if their characters are not in harmony, as an ensemble the cast are perfectly in tune. Whilst each has their own moment to shine (such as Lynch’s delicate ‘All the Dead Poets’ or Alberto’s touching ‘I Think I Want to Go Home’), collectively they discover much needed dynamism in what is essentially a cycle of synonymous songs. The ‘big’ questions in life have been thrown into a thesaurus, the overly long index of which informs the script. The characters suffer from the subsequent shallowness. There is heightened emotion in the delivery, but nothing touches the heart. But then again, too much time is spent discussing whether the heart is just a blob of muscle and chemicals or whether it is the gateway to the soul.
Jenny Eastop’s staging makes good use of Lee Newby’s evocative, white-washed set: a mix of M. C. Escher and Tuscan villa, bathed in Mediterranean warmth by Jamie Platt’s lighting. Schmidt’s score is enlivened by the onstage trio of percussion, keys and cello. There are, indeed, moments of beauty to be found. The musicianship is faultless, particularly cellist Georgia Morse whose presence and musicality is a highlight throughout.
There are leitmotifs and false endings, and plenty of existential angst in the second act. And although the immovable opinions of the characters seem to melt ever so slightly under the weight of the sugary conclusion, there is still little to care about. The two pairs of lovers are not even certain whether they disagree or merely agree to disagree. The questions remain. But the curiosity? Whilst it may rub the fur the wrong way, it is not going to trouble the cat – let alone kill it.
“unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad”
We need to talk about “Steve”. Or rather Steven. And Stephen. And Esteban (the Spanish form of Stephen). There’s another Steve, too, in Mark Gerrard’s tragicomedy who lurks, unseen, offstage but just as instrumental in the unravelling of the tightly knitted relationships of his namesakes and their best buddies. Even the late Stephen Sondheim is ever present throughout this production, to whom it is dedicated; his music a constant undercurrent, and wisps of his lyrics reverently scattered over the dialogue. There is something elegiac about Gerrard’s bittersweet tale. A parable, almost. Self-aware and conscious of the passage of time.
The play opens with Steven celebrating his 47th birthday in a downtown New York bar. Although not in a fully-fledged midlife crisis, Steven is struggling with the transition into middle age. A stay-at-home Dad, he is also grappling with the notion that his long-term partner is having an affair with his best friend’s partner. Meanwhile his closest confidante, Carrie, is terminally ill. Fuelled by vodka stingers he inevitably spills out his emotions, upsetting his guests and the glasses on the table. But no matter, Argentine waiter Esteban is on hand to clear up the literal and figurative mess. So, too, is the rewind button which replays the scene avoiding the outburst and offering a smoother transition into the unfolding narrative that follows.
Andrew Keates’ spirited and passionate direction perfectly mixes a human story with a heightened, almost musical delivery from the characters. Whenever it becomes a touch absurdist we are pulled back into the nitty gritty of everyday life. Infidelity, parenthood, monogamy, mortality, impending death, lost opportunities. We all know the score. We may have heard it before, but Gerrard manages to make it fresher by putting it in the context of same sex relationships. But even that concept, like the play’s protagonists, is reaching a certain age, and Gerrard is cleverly questioning whether the gay community itself might be having a midlife crisis. ‘Where do we go from here?’ he seems to be asking. While celebrating the huge progress made over the decades, there is a whole new set of questions now. Inspired by the passing of the New York marriage bill, Gerrard is reflecting on the double-edged nature of the milestone. “Oh my god, now we can get married. What are we supposed to do with that?”
This is definitely not a ‘be careful what you wish for’ scenario, however. Nor is it a caricature of the gay American Dream. The writing is too sharp for that and at times the sexuality is irrelevant. It speaks to everyone. It is fundamentally about relationships and friendships and how we look out for and after each other. It is unquestionably funny and also heartbreakingly sad. Keates makes us care deeply about the personalities laid bare before us, aided by his impressive cast.
David Ames holds the fort as Steven, hilariously abrasive and camp but deeply caring and easily wounded. Jenna Russell gives an absolutely glowing performance as Carrie, the bold and brazen lesbian confronting her terminal illness with more strength than all the men around her put together. All the performances are exceptional; strongly twisting the dialogue – wringing out the laughs and the tears in equal measure. The highs and lows are mirrored by Ben Papworth at the piano, echoing the emotions with his dynamic and varied accompaniment.
The phrase ‘Once Upon A Time’ is a leitmotif throughout the show that reminds us that this is a New York Fairy Tale – in many senses of the word. But it also reminds us that the happy endings promised are more elusive than we once thought. We have come a long way, Gerrard seems to be saying, but there’s still further to go. But, hey, forget the psychobabble – “Steve” is in essence a hugely entertaining tragicomedy. Sharper than most that cover similar ground, it cuts through societal and sexual divides and then unwittingly sews them together. It appeals to all of us – and is a ‘must see’.