“The writing avoids stereotypes and subverts expectations in surprising ways; it’s cleverly done”
There is something rather wonderful about watching a high quality musical in a small venue. The closeness to the actors and the sense of being almost surrounded by their glorious voices in an intimate space brings a sense of emotional involvement that is much harder to achieve in a large theatre. Fiver, written by Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees fills the space with vibrant energy and passion, taking the audience on a roller coaster ride as it charts the journey of an ordinary five pound note from pocket to wallet, through the hands of dozens of characters. The cast of five morph into a host of women and men, all linked by the fiver’s travels. There are some characters who appear as threads in the interwoven storylines, and many more who appear just once, maybe just for a minute, but still make an impact.
This is very much an ensemble piece, performed by a cast of five talented actors. Hiba Elchikhe, Luke Bayer, Aoife Clesham, Dan Buckley and Alex James Ellison make a great team, bouncing off each other’s energy and telling many human stories with heart, humour and compassion. The writing avoids stereotypes and subverts expectations in surprising ways; it’s cleverly done. Justin Williams’ well designed flexible set, and the lighting and sound design, by Alex Musgrave and Chris Taunton respectively, give the action a hugely varied physical context, beautifully supporting the storytelling.
The piece works well musically too. There were tears in the audience during the moving and achingly beautiful ‘You’ll be a man, my son’ which segued into a school scene that brought back memories of the effortless cruelty of children. The story of the letter, and the repeated refrain of ‘have you prayed tonight teacher?’ was intriguing and eventually chilling. There was also plenty of uproarious laughter throughout.
There was some confusion in the second act when the time line felt muddled. This was such a huge disconnect that it threw me out of the story for a while, as I tried to follow the logic. It’s a shame, as in the rest of the show the stories twined together with amazing coherence. This could be fixed by reorganising the scenes, and I hope Ellison and Lees consider doing so before the show has its next outing.
The ‘adventures’ of the humble fiver provide a framework on which Ellison and Lees have hung tales of love, loss, joy, sadness and what it’s like to be human. It’s a lovely piece.
“shortcomings are largely made up for by three exceptional performances from the cast”
S. Asher Gelman notes that polyamory is a subject that’s seldom broached in art, and he’s not wrong. Luckily, his play Afterglow is here to remedy that, following a successful Off-Broadway run in 2017 and 2018, which bravely gives a voice and a platform to an often ignored or stigmatised type of relationship.
Centred around husbands Josh (Sean Hart) and Alex (Danny Mahoney), Afterglow explores the impact that Darius (Jesse Fox) has on their open marriage when their friends-with-benefits arrangement starts to develop into something much heavier with Josh, leaving Alex feeling excluded. The play’s frank attitude towards sex (it opens with a threesome and features a significant amount of full-frontal nudity) allows for a poignant and thought-provoking interrogation of love, intimacy, jealousy, and trust in non-traditional relationships.
Although Gelman’s script doesn’t always feel like it’s taking these themes are far as it could, however, it is well-paced and sporting a heft of relatable and quirky dialogue (for example, a running gag where Josh and Alex refer to their forthcoming surrogate child by the fruit that the foetus is currently the size of). The mechanics of the writing can be a little too obvious, as one character will contrive a reason to leave the stage just so that the other two can remain alone; yet it also never feels like Gelman pulls each thread enough to facilitate a truly satisfying climax. These shortcomings are largely made up for by three exceptional performances from the cast though, as the detail and nuance that their portrayals bring exacerbate the core themes in multifaceted ways. Hart and Mahoney deliver a beautiful domestic intimacy in their scenes together, with Hart in particular embodying Josh with a hugely endearing playfulness – one moment in which Josh mockingly hides from Alex under the pillows of a couch is utterly delightful. Tom O’Brien’s direction utilises instances such as these to excellent effect in fulling fleshing out these characters’ lives.
Libby Todd’s set design is immensely detailed – to the extent that it even features a functioning shower – with just three tables being boundlessly multi-purposed and garnished with a whole deluge of props. If anything, it’s too detailed though, as scene changes felt extraordinarily long with all the table-rearranging and set-dressing that had to take place. This was mired further by the fact that – due to the aforementioned nudity – these transitions also featured the actors having to get dressed and undressed. There was a noted effort to make these scene changes character driven, but they ultimately just felt fiddly and arduous, and subsequently killed the pace of the show.
Overall, Afterglow is a window into a lifestyle that is sorely under-represented and on that basis alone feels vital – it’s just a blessing that the play is also searingly characterful and ruminative too.