Reviewed – 1st June 2022
“impassioned and emotive vocal performance”
“It’s a conversation.” Max Alexander-Taylor chats with audience members pre-show, sitting casually on empty seats, guitar in hand. He speaks, not as Benjamin Scheuer, the autobiographical character he plays, but as himself. These intimate moments prime the audience for a similar intimacy in performance: a three-quarter thrust in Southwark Playhouse’s The Little, the light from elegantly scattered shade-less lamps low and warm, a musical performance that is spoken as much as it is sung. This opening moment, however, also highlights the difficulty of reviving an autobiographical show with a new performer. The tension between actor and character remains nearly constant.
The Lion, a revival of the Drama Desk Award-winning 2014 folk musical, traces the story of Scheuer’s upbringing, his battle with cancer as a young man, and his coming to terms with an imperfect father. The narrative and character relationships are drawn through the constant motif and medium of folk music. The songs are thoughtful and specific—a line about Scheuer’s first girlfriend writing corrections to the White House correspondent at the New York Times remains ringing in my mind. Key moments in the character’s life are marked by the introduction of a new guitar, all of which line the back wall of the stage. These guitar changes serve as an effective storytelling mechanism—the electric guitar marks Benjamin’s burst into early adulthood, his final acoustic guitar is visually and sonically glossy, matching his personal triumph and maturation. The red guitar, however, which is introduced midway through the show, enters unaddressed. This break in convention takes away slightly from what is otherwise a narratively taught piece of theatre.
As the performance unfolds, Alexander-Taylor oscillates between disappearing into the character and narrating from outside of him. Instead of leaning into this tension, aside from the pre-show conversations, the performance attempts to gloss over it, which leads to a general unevenness. Alexander-Taylor’s disappearances, which become more frequent in the final leg of the performance, are quite compelling. The guitar work becomes both looser and more detailed, which is mirrored by his impassioned and emotive vocal performance. The earlier portions of the show would have benefitted from this looseness, though the directorial impulse of Alex Stenhouse and Sean Daniels to reign these moments in is understandable. The trade-off between clarity of langue and clarity of emotion can be difficult to manage, especially with verbose and narratively rich songs.
Emma Chapman’s lighting design is understated yet expressive. The exposed bulbs that litter the stage and audience alike glow and temper along with the emotional waves of the piece. A blue wash creates the impression of the dive bars in which Benjamin plays the angsty grunge and blues rock of his youth. A cool, harsh sidelight transports us to a moonlit cemetery. At the climax, light emanates from beneath the weathered wooden planks (set design Simon Kenny) that form the stage, filling the room.
While the tension between character and performer lends itself to narrative instability, The Lion does not want for technical prowess or pathos.
Reviewed by JC Kerr
Photography by Pamela Raith
Southwark Playhouse until 25th June
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