Sunday, 11th December
This fascinating new music theatre piece has a long and complex history. It first manifested itself as ‘After The Turn’ at the Courtyard Theatre in 2012 – where it was hailed by Mark Shenton as ‘the British ‘Rent’’. After much re-writing from playwright Sarah Henley and songwriters Tori Allen-Martin and Tim Prottey-Jones, I first came across it earlier this year at the Actors’ Church in Covent Garden, where it was presented – to great effect – in a concert performance with a very strong West End cast. Director Jamie Jackson made much of the musical content, using a stunning session band located in the vestry, whose sounds were piped through to the ‘auditorium’, where the numbers were really ‘delivered’ with terrific energy and excitement; MD Simon Lambert oversaw the process of coordinating the action on the chancel steps with what the band was doing in a far-off corner of the building with masterful control and flair. It really was a thrilling event.
The writers seemed to have found a mine of energy and vitality in a story of everyday tragedy, of the kind that litters the pages of The Evening Standard every day. A sorrowful tale of people trapped by fate and ill-luck, but indefatigable in their determination to persevere. Even though there was little ‘happening’ on stage, what we had – perfectly expressed in the church – was a sort of modern urban oratorio: ambitious in its creative vision and gorgeously attractive in its musical expression.
How wonderful, then, to see the enterprising new ‘The Bunker’ (the subterranean lair of avant-garde and adventurous theatre next to the Menier) take it on as its next offering, occupying the often lucrative holiday slot over Christmas and New Year. Hopes are certainly running high for this young lioness of a beast. It is booked in for a month-long solidly packed run. Stephen Fry described the show as ‘stunning’, and as you enter the theatre, one’s breath is certainly taken away by the set design by Sarah Beaton: an ominous black box, admonished by an inverted triangle of white light (lighting by Zoe Spurr) that glows eerily behind a central swing hung over a sunken geometric black pool set into the black rostrum of the raised stage. It looks magnificent and is a visual statement you will not forget in a hurry.
But what has that got to do with the story? That is less clear. It is something akin to a puzzle, which has been set the audience to decipher over the next two and a half hours. Such an abstract staging is a boldly radical solution to a play that is written with Sarah Henley’s characteristic easy-going naturalism. In fact, one of the actors playing the lead, Michael, is Edd Campbell-Bird, whom we last saw negotiating a similar set (complete with water feature) in the frankly expressionistic ‘Adding Machine’ at The Finborough, is a pertinent reminder of how staging choices can bring the audience and story closer together. One cannot help but wonder whether this design concept is doing the same, or perhaps having some other effect. Costume here is entirely realistic. The lighting is not. Some black box productions work brilliantly well (no-one who has seen it will ever forget Trevor Nunn’s ‘Macbeth’ with Judi Dench and Ian McKellan, etc.). The question is: is ‘Muted’ that kind of a show?
Generally speaking, black is a colour that drains energy from a production, unless provided with an antidote: the black space of ‘A Chorus Line’, for instance, was ignited incandescently by the blazing power of a big theatre’s lights and that splendid set of mirrors at the back – and a relentlessly optimistic, driving book and score. That was a bank of tam-tams of effects, against which Interval Productions seem to pit a little triangle. Here, taking its cue from Adam Gerber’s delicately poised musical direction and arrangements for a superbly disciplined rock band of Gus Isidore, guitar, Greg Pringle, bass, and Stephen Street, drums. Gerber also composes incidental music, and throughout keeps the musical contours here are gentle, almost slight, in Max Perryment’s sound design. The singing is careful and thoughtful; only Lauren’s part seems to lift the music into flight, creating a pleasurable effect. Elsewhere, the serious tone prevails, earnestness is the attitude and delivery is sometimes almost stiff in its formality. This extends into every corner of the production, which comes to resemble an extraordinary Japanese rock garden, which instead of stones is full of human sculptures that can never all be seen from any one vantage point.
Interval Productions have 100 seats to fill, seven shows a week, for a month, and on the performance I attended about a third of the seats were occupied. The company believes in what it is doing, and so do a lot of other people: its Kickstarter campaign comfortably raised the £10,000 asked for. However, more funds are required, so, if you are enthused by these iconoclasts, then please do send a cheque. The path towards a new musical theatre can be a treacherous one. Recently, at the LOST Theatre an equally severely-configured production (‘Fables for a Boy’) played a few weeks, and struggled to find an audience. Even the National with ‘The Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer’ fought an uphill battle to win hearts and minds with a mostly much jollier show than is on display here. I hugely admire and respect the artistic single-mindedness these projects demand; but I am also mindful of the audience members who find it difficult to ‘settle into’ them and may come away from them thinking, ‘That’s very depressing’.
Elsewhere on stage, we have a lot of top calibre performers. It is great to see again as the silent central character, Michael, the ex-boyfriend stricken by grief, played by David Leopold (whom some will remember from the intense chamber musical, ‘The Burnt Part Boys’). Then there is the tense poise and panther-like moves of his replacement, Jake, the jealous new boyfriend of Jos Slovick (last seen by me stalking the stage of the Theatre Royal Haymarket in ‘Bad Jews’). There is also the fast-talking elegance of the surprisingly middle-class and economically successful Mark Hawkins as the silent hero’s youthful uncle, Will. And Helen Hobson’s practised west end skills given proper welly to the role of the lead’s domineering, alcoholic mother, Amanda, whom we see in a series of flashbacks. Finally, we get the magnificent, unique voice of one of the songwriters, Tori Allen-Martin, again taking the part of the would-be carer with a dark, dark secret, Lauren. Her vocal equipment is one of the great glories of the contemporary musical theatre scene; however, was I alone in thinking she often seemed a little ill at ease on the resolutely sombre and uncomfortable platform erected for this production? And was not the impact of the rest of the cast similarly cooled in its effect? And did not all their performances take on a rather static quality, with a tendency towards fixity and even inertia? This might all be deliberate, of course. There is ‘movement’ by Isla Jackson-Ritchie, but we see little beyond a narrow range of hand and arm gestures, delivered in falung gong style from a calm stationary position. Instead of embracing and utilising the elaborate structure upon which the telling of the story unfolds, she seems to wish to avoid it. This, again, could well be part of the conception. However, that unease is then communicated directly to the audience.
Well, there are times, I suppose, when one wants things to be still and reflective. But does one necessarily want that mood to predominate in a musical? And in a plot that lacks virtually all action, and indeed has to accommodate a protagonist who is speechless for the majority of the performance, are features of that kind going to support the ability of the show to reach out to audiences? We shall see.
Until 7 January 2017