Paul T Davies reviews Gus Gowland’s new musical Pieces Of String at the Mercury Theatre Colchester.
Pieces of String.
Mercury Theatre, Colchester.
27 April 2018
Well, here’s bold and exciting programming from the Mercury Theatre. Not just a new British musical that isn’t a jukebox of well known hits, but an entirely original one which has at its centre a gay love story from the second World War and it’s impact on families for generations. Gus Gowland’s beautiful, tender book and score is a multi layered tale of secrets, lies and denial, eventually reaching an understanding of the past that allows the characters to move on into the future. Tom and Edward have a passionate affair during the war, after which Edward stays in an unhappy marriage to his wife, Anna, bringing up their daughter, Jane, in a hostile environment. Decades later Jane and her children, Gemma and gay son Ed, arrive to clear Edward’s house following his death. The uncovering of letters and the arrival of Rose, Tom’s sister, reveals the affair.
The piece is magnificently directed by Ryan McBryde, who plays the scenes from past and present side by side so confidently that there is no confusion as to time and location, and when gestures and movements echo down the decades it is beautifully moving. Fin Redshaw’s design supports this concept brilliantly, and the lighting by Ben Cracknell sweeps through time and location, making the mouldy walls appear as forests and churches. (Well, I could see them!) And then we have the terrific ensemble.
The central love story is beautifully portrayed and utterly convincing, Craig Mather capturing perfectly tormented Edward, in love with a man at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence, condemning himself to an unhappy marriage and fleeting moments with Tom. Joel Harper-Jackson is outstanding as Tom, confident and ahead of his time with his honesty and outspoken nature of his sexuality, he commands the stage. That torment is nicely reflected in his grandson Ed, a great performance by Andy Coxon, out yet denying his love for his boyfriend Harry, (Gary Wood), mainly because of the homophobic attitude of his mother, Jane, (Carol Starks) As Rose, Marilyn Cutts almost steals the show, entering the musical at just the right moment and providing excellent comedy. Gemma is a bit of a stereotype as a stroppy teenager, but Ella Dunlop brings her to life well, and the entire company sings beautifully. The quartet between the four male characters in the first half lifts the show from good to something really special.
I needed more justification for Jane’s vile homophobia; especially as Ed does everything he can to please her. I accept that she is a symbol of homophobia in general, yet I kept waiting for her to reveal that she had always suspected her father was gay, but it never arrives, and I found the beginnings of her understanding of her father and her son a little rushed as a result. The music, beautiful as it is, contains a lot of angst, and some lightening of the mood in the score would have balanced it out a little. But these are minor quibbles as; overall, this is a bit of a triumph. The company, and the theatre, have poured their heart and soul into this musical, and the standing ovations are a worthy reward. Best to see it now, at the beginning, so when it carries on its successful journey, you can say that you were there when it all started!
Until 5 May 2018