Ray Rackham reviews High Fidelity the musical by Tom Kitt, Amanda Green and David Lindsay Abaire, based on Nick Hornby's novel now playing at The Turbine Theatre, Battersea.
If I speak, post or tweet about comparatively few musicals the day after I have seen them; it’s because I believe we can only truly let our hearts soar when something is very good. Moreover, we only become better human beings from the exceptional. Consider this review a love letter to High Fidelity; or rather a mixtape of praise for a truly exceptional show from the new Turbine Theatre.
The Broadway offering of this show, which lasted little over a week or so over a decade ago, received a lukewarm response and pretty much flopped into obscurity; and in watching this London premiere, one cannot begin to understand why. High Fidelity is a beautifully designed, tunefully crafted, original musical that seems both terribly familiar and refreshingly new. It is a funny and heart-warming A-side of brilliance; with a knock-out cast and stellar performances throughout; and this reviewer fell completely under its spell within the first sixteen bars of the opening number.
A charming theatrical adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, and the 2000 movie version, High Fidelity could have easily been a jukebox affair of mid ‘90s B-sides; however Tom Kitt’s rock-infused score and Amanda Green’s wittily conversational lyrics more than convincingly tap the pulse of the period, with affectionate pastiches of pop-cultural greats – from Aretha Franklin to Nirvana, via Neil Young and “The Boss” himself, Bruce Springsteen. David Lindsay-Abaire’s book has had a post #MeToo refresh by Vikki Stone, who successfully relocates the musical from Brooklyn back to the novel’s Holloway Road, and more than softens the edges of toxic masculinity that permeated the Broadway original.
Now, we find slacker Rob (an impossibly charming Oliver Ormson) navigating life by witnessing it, rather than living it, and wasting his time geekishly making top five lists in his North London record shop (exquisitely designed by David Shields) with his equally deadbeat colleagues (a gloriously impish Carl Au as Dick and delightfully boarish Robbie Durham as Barry). When, very early on, we learn Rob’s long-suffering girlfriend Laura (played with genuine heart by Shanay Holmes) has decided to leave him; we embark on Rob’s journey of self-discovery; unravelling years of self-centred and delusional projection in respect of his previous lost loves. It is 2019’s reviewing of this journey that works so well, coupled with Tom Jackson Greaves inventive staging of a number of fantasy sequences involving Rob’s top five exes. By far the most enjoyable had the perfect combination of hilarious song, ingenious staging and perfect performance as Laura and the ex-girlfriends (abetted by a rainbow collection of helium balloons) invade Rob’s psyche in “Number Five With a Bullet”. The fantasy element invites the audience to become complicit in Rob’s process for greater insight and hopeful for his redemption.
And that’s pretty much it. A story of boy loses girl and learns from his experience. What keeps this revised version of High Fidelity from becoming lacklustre is its ability to paint its characters as flawed human beings, portrayed by a uniformly brilliant cast. We see Ormson’s Rob at his lowest in a delightfully funny fantasy sequence involving Laura’s new boyfriend, a self-proclaimed new-age guru Ian, played to “knit-your-own-muesli” perfection by Robert Tripolino. We witness Bobbie Little’s hilarious best friend Liz spectacularly fail at remaining neutral (her “She Goes” is a highlight song of Act One). We cringe as the man-children of the record shop continue to blunder their way through interactions with the outside world and potential loves.
In what was perhaps the most affecting moment of the show, a gloriously poignant Act Two opening sequence sees a split-scene between Rob and Laura with new lovers. Their lives remain so similar, and yet they are so far apart both literally and figuratively; a sentiment underscored beautifully in the accompanying songs “I Slept with Someone…”
High Fidelity may have bombed on Broadway, but it’s a Pepsi Chart Show hit in Battersea. A perfect piece from one of London’s newest theatres, which raises the already high bar of the Off-West-End.