“The action plays and replays in LJ’s bar – Justin Williams’ impressive centrepiece – with the six strong cast giving fine acting performances”
We are in LJ’s bar. It is 7pm on Monday 14th (the month is unspecified). For the next two and a half hours it is 7pm on Monday 14th six times. One day is played out in the lives of the six characters, each time from their own perspective. It is a clever idea. Everything has changed and nothing has changed. There are inevitably going to be comparisons to ‘Groundhog Day’, but “Tasting Notes” owes more to Alan Ayckbourn’s ‘Norman Conquests’ trilogy. With perhaps a touch of ‘Sliding Doors’ thrown in. As we witness the action from the various mind’s eyes, the full picture is slowly revealed. Unfortunately, too slowly.
LJ (Nancy Zamit) runs the bar. She lives in the bar, invariably sleeping there overnight. She loves it, but she tires of it and there is nothing else. Not so for her staff. A waitress is never just a waitress. Maggie (Charlie Ryall – who also co-wrote the book and lyrics with composer Richard Baker) serves drinks in between going off to another soul-destroying audition. Her torch burns for her colleague Oliver (Niall Ransome). Despite the mutual attraction, Oliver is more anxious to get home to his cat (never trust a cat person!). Eszter (Wendy Morgan) spends more time cleaning up after her wayward son than she does washing the dirty glasses. George (Sam Kipling) doesn’t let little things like punctuality get in the way of his extracurricular activities. If only he would set his watch to regular customer, Joe (Stephen Hoo), who’s through the door at opening time, ready to drink away his memories.
The action plays and replays in LJ’s bar – Justin Williams’ impressive centrepiece – with the six strong cast giving fine acting performances. Ryall has an ear for dialogue, which flows naturally; the initial mundanity belying the subsequent significance and dark twists. Baker has a similar way with words, crafting some clever lyrics into the dozen or so songs that flesh out the book. But the show needs condensing rather than fattening up. However good the concept may be, rewinding half a dozen times really starts to dilute the effect, and the ideas lose their taste. We feel like we’re watching a drama game, or some serious ‘actioning’ in the rehearsal room.
The second act does drag, until the dark, unexpected twist jolts us. We wish we could have reached it much sooner, despite the welcome distraction of lesser revelations on the way. This is a work in progress; or a pitch. Except that we are being given the whole menu instead of a taste of what it could be. There is a lot left on the plate, which goes to waste. Ryall’s script is clever, but there are too many notes that cloud the overall flavour. And one questions the decision as to why it needed to be a musical (although everything seems to be a musical nowadays). Baker’s score, more of a song cycle, matches the craftmanship of his lyricism but is too easy on the ear. And the cast, despite their solid grip on the language and characterisation of the piece, invariably find the musical demands beyond their grasp. Which is surprising at a venue noted for the quality of its musical theatre.
“Tasting Notes” has shades of “Friends” or “Cheers”, although with more contrast: it can be funnier, and it certainly gets darker. But ultimately it feels like you’re being talked into having one more for the road; when you’ve already had enough.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Chris Marchant
Southwark Playhouse until 27th August
Take a look at some other shows previously reviewed at this venue:
“The cast were in fine voice throughout what must be something of an operatic endurance test”
The Pirates of Penzance, along with The Mikado, is probably the most well known and loved of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. ‘I am the very model of a modern Major General’ and ‘A policeman’s lot is not a happy one’ have long since become part of the English cultural kit-bag, and Wilton’s is the perfect setting for Sasha Regan’s revival, imbued as it is with nostalgia, and the ghosts of early revue, vaudeville and musical theatre. The plot is utterly nonsensical, involving a crew of sentimental pirates (they have a soft spot for orphans), an indentured crew member there under false pretenses (his nursemaid thought she was apprenticing him to a pilot), a Major General and his bevy of daughters, and a well-meaning but terrified posse of policemen. Amidst this chaos, our hero Frederic (the pirate-by-proxy) falls in love with Mabel, one of the Major-General’s daughters, and, predictably, after various travails, finally marries her. Suffice it to say, that no-one goes to a Gilbert and Sullivan for the plot!
Gilbert and Sullivan’s enduring appeal lies in the marvellous marriage of music and lyrics that this extraordinarily brilliant duo brought to the stage, and Sasha Regan’s talented cast – with superb musical direction from Richard Baker – performed with skill and evident relish throughout. The opening number smacked a little too much of all-boy burlesque, but ‘I am a pirate king’, two songs later, brilliantly delivered by James Thackeray, steadied the ship and it was pretty smooth sailing henceforth. For the most part, the production successfully trod the delicate line between affectionate high camp and embarrassing caricature, though there were moments, in the first half particularly, which needed to be reined in. Each of the play’s female leads (Alan Richardson as Ruth; Tom Bales as Mabel) was at their most compelling when at their least performative, and Tom Bales beautifully captured the yearning and romance in Mabel’s duet with Frederic, ‘Stay, Frederic stay’. David McKechnie was a splendid Major-General – full of pomp and pathos; and Sam Kipling gave a lovely comic cameo in the role of Edith.
The cast were in fine voice throughout what must be something of an operatic endurance test, particularly for the female leads; Alan Richardson as Ruth stood out in particular in terms of vocal strength and clarity. Lizzie Gee’s choreography was full of fun, and the ensemble work was terrific. Particularly memorable were the young ladies’ fluttering entrance through the gallery, the antics of the moustachioed policemen, and the fast and furious ‘A paradox’. The show cracked along and seldom lost pace, and although some of the lyrics were lost in the bigger ensemble numbers (‘Stay, we must not lose our senses’), the judicious combination of well-articulated singing and Wilton’s acoustics ensured that W.S.Gilbert’s sparkling wordplay delighted as it should.
The Pirates of Penzance was Gilbert and Sullivan’s fifth collaboration, which premiered in New York in 1879. One hundred and forty years later, its loony plot, catchy tunes and witty lyrics still have the power to entertain a packed house, and reduce an audience to tears of laughter. A great deal has happened in that time however. Ironically, Sasha Regan’s all-male production actually takes the sting out of some of the book’s more toe-curling moments with regard to women – I’m thinking particularly here of Frederic’s early treatment of Ruth – but it does seem dated in all the wrong ways to see an all-white cast in 2019, and it is to be hoped that this issue will be addressed when taking the show forward. Let’s get some more pirates on board!