Julian Eaves reviews Island Song, a new musical by Sam Carner and Derek Gregor at the Nursery Theatre, London.
12th April 2018
One of the more exciting developments this month is surely the arrival on our shores of this splendid new revue-like song-cycle by the brilliantly talented American writing team of Sam Carner (words) and Derek Gregor (music). Incredibly, despite their amazing capability and gifts, they have had to rely on the championing of a relatively unknown company to introduce them to us, and congratulations are due to actor-producers Drou Constantinou and Abby Restall, founders of the enterprising Hidden Theatre Company, for making this happen. Their choice is flawless. This is one of the best written new shows we will see this year, even if it is making only the briefest initial appearance with two dates at the Tristan Bates before the swiftest Thursday-to-Monday run at this spanking new fringe venue in the City. We can but hope that some sensible people will take this up and make a whole lot more of it. It really merits it.
Constantinou and Restall had this show in their sights well ahead of even creating a company to present it: they found out about it while in New York, and contacted the writers on spec, not really imagining they would get the rights to bring it to the UK. But luck was on their side. No one else was in the running. With the writers working closely alongside them, they have spent the past two years putting together a company to do the work justice. They have brought into their team another performer, Joshua Wills, and then found their director-choreographer in Christian Bullen, who recruited the last two members of the cast, promising newcomers Jack Anthony Smart and Stephanie Lyse, who has never been better and frequently comes close to stealing the show. Another great find is the new MD, Ben David Papworth, who knows exactly how to pitch the wildly varied content and leads the onstage trio completed by bass, Michael Dahl Rasmussen, and percussion, Isis Dunthorne. With lights looked after by Gregory Jordan and a few multi-purpose boxes for a set and costume – I guess – provided by the cast, this show is light on its feet and looks like it could travel anywhere. It may not have much in the way of production gloss about it, but there are ample compensations.
The great strength of the material is in the quality of the writing. And that is of the very best. In a fluid 90 minutes, we hurtle through well over two dozen scenes in the lives of contemporary New Yorkers, who do all the usual NYC things of hustling and striving, struggling and arguing, doubting, losing and then finding themselves. The island of the title may mean, literally, Manhattan, but it is also a signifier of many metaphorical locations as well: where we find solitude, loneliness, identity, refuge and idyll, all figuring as tropes in this sophisticated, complex guide to modern urban living. There is much here in the format that is familiar to British audiences from works like ‘Ordinary Days’ or ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’ – beautifully written songs telling inventive stories, interleaved with brightly crafted monologues or the occasional patch of duologue, but the voice of Carner and Gregor is entirely their own. They are smart, witty, skilled and passionate and they take us on a magnificent ride through their particular obsessions and loves. There isn’t a single word or bar in this show that doesn’t come from the heart; everything about it rings true, and it speaks to today’s Britain with just as much honesty and directness.
To this end, the cast must assume a variety of roles, each one of whom has his or her own fascinating story to recount and a special journey to follow. Constantinou makes a splendid impact as Jordan, the driven career woman (‘I’ll Take It all’) unwittingly lured into quiet domesticity (‘Tie Me Up’); Wills plays Will, the quiet boy with noisy ardour (‘Wall Lovin’) who tames her; while Smart is the kid from the provinces who has given himself a year to become an actor (‘No Room For Plan B’)… while waiting tables; Lyse plays a deliciously loquacious eternal singleton, Shoshana, given to ‘therapy on the go’ (‘TMI’, a perfect cameo number that should be in every musical theatre actress’s rep folder); and Restall is the sentimentally romantic doormat who fights with her commitment to a hopeless affair (the beguilingly folksy ‘So Far From Pennsylvania’). Each of these intersects with the others in gratifyingly apt ways, so true to the random serendipity of city living, and their inadvertent encounters often result in profound and lasting change. Always seen through the arch, peculiar filter of their characters’ lives, Carner and Gregor seem to take no greater pleasure than when they announce: ‘This isn’t where you find yourself; this is where you have to know who you are and hang onto it for dear life, no matter what!’
We also get a trio of additional extras, the hilarious stoners, Stosh, Timo and Wallendia, whose appearances punctuate the action and are just right to open out the story. The pacing and the sequence of the numbers is unfailingly natural and wonderfully elastic: Bullen can hustle the action along with madcap fervour, or he can go as languorously as can be when the moment requires it. His choreographic touches are often brilliantly matched to the action but never merely illustrative; his gestures are most elaborated in the stirring ensembles (the opening ‘Island Song’ sequence is one of the best opening numbers I’ve heard in a new musical in a very long time, its splendid vocalese recurs periodically through the show and I guarantee it will stay with you – marvelously – long after you make your way home), but he can get a lot of emotion out of the tiniest events.
When the conclusion arrives, it does so with the same fine sense of timing that runs throughout the piece: no effect ever over-stays its welcome, and it is as if the characters are handing it all over to us as a parting gift, allowing us to go and be at one with our own islands, wherever they may be. Bliss.