KILLING THE CAT at the Riverside Studios
“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.
Reviewed on 22nd March 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Danny Kaan
Previously reviewed at this venue: