Reviewed – 3rd March 2020
“might not be a musical revolution, but it is a confident, fresh, and well-crafted show”
Adam Lenson is on a mission. Under his new production company, he’s determined to foster a whole generation of British musicals that challenge and revolutionise the form, and Stages is the first musical to be produced under that label. So, understandably, Lenson and writer/lyricist/composer Christian Czornyj must have quite a lot riding on its success – but does Stages set the bar for a new era of musicals?
The show chiefly follows teen technophile Aiden (Max Alexander-Taylor) as his life and family are thrown into disarray when his mum, Alice (Anna-Jane Casey), is diagnosed with cancer. Aiden, as well as his sister Ellie (Aitch Wylie) and father Owen (Andrew Langtree) all struggle to come to terms with the notion of losing Alice, and with the concept of not having control. This theme is taken a step further by ostensibly putting control in the audience’s hands – there are a number of moments where the audience are given the option between two different possibilities which are voted on with coloured cards. These choices range from trivial, such as what colour hoodie Aiden wears, to deeply impactful, such as whether Alice should receive treatment, and initially give the audience a sense of real agency in the story, although this is then unfortunately taken away by an unexpected plot development.
Stages goes in hard on its inspiration from video games – the music is comprised entirely of 8-bit chiptune sounds, and the back wall of the set (Libby Todd) is a video screen that generates pixellated portrayals of the setting or of relevant text. It’s a bold, creative, and characterful choice that pays off through intuitive but unobtrusive storytelling. The songs, too, contribute greatly to the thematic choices the show makes – the music will remind you of different levels of your favourite games growing up, from the tranquil tracks that’d usually involve some sort of mystical forest, to tense boss battle-esque music. Perhaps a few too many numbers favour the former style, but it’s such a unique timbre that you won’t tire of it. All the cast also deliver stellar vocals under the supervision of Tamara Saringer, with some particularly beautiful harmonies on display.
The individual performances are equally excellent, with Wylie standing out in creating an idiosyncratic and relatable older sister, and Alexander-Taylor bringing an engrossing physicality to Aiden. It feels as though the actors are sometimes wishing for a little more to chew on, as the script and lyrics stray into being a bit too simple and repetitive at times, but Lenson’s direction knows how to find the heart of every moment. Stages might not be a musical revolution, but it is a confident, fresh, and well-crafted show that delivers its narrative in a new and exciting way.
Reviewed by Ethan Doyle
Photography by Nick Brittain