“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.
“The performances marvellously capture all the aspects of love that the libretto tries to convey”
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love” was met with a mixed reception when first written and produced in the eighties, and it is indeed one of his more curious affairs. Its own meandering inception and evolution seems to match the rather convoluted plot, based on the autobiography of David Garnett, Virginia Woolf’s nephew. Originally mooted as a film for which Webber and Tim Rice were to contribute some songs, it morphed into an unrealised collaborative cabaret with Trevor Nunn at the helm, before lyricists Don Black and Charles Hart came on board to help steer the vessel in some sort of definite direction. Sandwiched between “Phantom of the Opera” and “Sunset Boulevard” it probably suffered from a lack of focus and some have said it lost its way.
Katie Lipson has untangled the rigging in this revival, first produced last summer at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, and put it well and truly back on track; also showing us that there is more to this musical than the hit song, “Love Changes Everything”. For there are some truly striking melodies which, by stripping the accompaniment back to just two pianos and percussion, are now allowed to shine through the otherwise lumbering sung-through dialogue.
The story begins with the character of Alex (Felix Mosse) who is looking back over his life. It then flashes back to 1947 when he fell in love with Rose Vibert (Kelly Price), the star of a touring acting company. The young Alex convinces the older actress to spend two weeks with him at his Uncle George’s unoccupied estate. When Uncle George (Jerome Pradon) returns unexpectantly and finds himself attracted to Rose, the complications begin. Complications not just for the characters within the story though; but for the producers too. The trick now is how to keep the audience engaged as the characters canoodle their way through the doodling plot, occasionally thrown off kilter by sudden shifts in time.
But Lipson has the Midas Touch when it comes to musical theatre and has once again assembled an impressively strong cast. The performances marvellously capture all the aspects of love that the libretto tries to convey. Jonathan O’Boyle’s confident direction allows the detail to be seen through the myriad scene and time changes. And if you don’t really care for the plot you certainly care about the characters.
Despite the heavy-handed feel of the piano accompaniment (which some tweaking on the sound desk could quickly cure) the vocal performances are beautiful and searingly moving. Mosse’s intimate yet unsentimental rendition of ‘Love Changes Everything’ is a delightful detour from the original, but the highlights of the show include Price’s heart rending ‘Anything But Lonely’ and Pradon’s understated opening to the Ivor Novello tinged ‘The First Man You Remember’.
But beyond this central love triangle is where the interest really lies. Madalena Alberto, as the free-loving Giulietta is compellingly watchable; Eleanor Walsh, as the fifteen-year-old Jenny, gives an assuredly mature performance that eschews the uncomfortable Lolita-style caricature that is often associated with the role. And Minal Patel, as actor manager Marcel, softly steals the smaller stage time he is allowed with his velvet voice.
It is a tricky show that explores perhaps too many variations on the theme of love. But it seems that this intelligent cast has picked one aspect, made it their own, and let it shine. Like the diamond in the mire, this clear-cut production lets the emotion glisten.