REVIEW: Superhero, Southwark Playhouse ✭✭✭✭✭

Superhero at Southwark Playhouse
Michael Rouse in Superhero. Photo: Alex Brenner

Southwark Playhouse
30th June 2017
5 Stars
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Stephen Sondheim – very modestly – likes to tell the story about how he’d never attempt a one-man musical, because the form is just ‘too hard’ to make work. And you can see his point. It’s difficult to create, let alone sustain, any sense of drama when everything has to come from just one voice, one point of view. Yet, in recent times, we’ve seen a spate of inventive solo plays – ‘Tonight With Donny Stixx’ and ‘This Is Not Culturally Significant’ spring to mind – that cleverly solve the theatrical problems about how to populate a stage with just one performer available. It was probably only a matter of time before someone thought of providing one of these with a musical setting. And – lo, and behold! – here at Newington Causeway just such a thing has appeared. Officially, the book is by Michael Conley, the music by Joseph Finlay and the lyrics by Richy Hughes: in practice, the three of them work together so closely, and inter-connectedly, that there is a great deal of cross-over between their three disciplines. And, in the sure hands of director Adam Lenson (assisted by Grace Taylor), designer Georgia de Grey, with lights by Sam Waddington and sound by Andy Hinton, what they have created is perhaps the best solution to the insoluble problem of the one-person-musical we have yet seen in this 90-minute, uninterrupted white-knuckle-ride of a show. Very jokingly, one might even suggest they do a masterclass for Steve… just to show him how it’s done.

Superhero at Southwark Playhouse
Michael Rouse in Superhero. Photo: Alex Brenner

So, where has this astonishing discovery come from? Well, a couple of years ago, Finlay and Hughes romped home in the Stiles and Drew New Song Competition with one of the very few numbers from the show they’d at that stage actually written: ‘Don’t Look Down’. Then, the narrative of a CSA-stricken divorced dad, climbing Big Ben dressed as a Marvel Superhero to protest against the inequality of the law’s treatment of fathers separated from their children, struck a wonderful chord with the public. The award of the prize goaded them into activity, and – two and a half years later – with a good bit of try-outs and workshopping under their bat-belts, as well as the invaluable inclusion of Conley (‘The Sorrows of Satan’, etc.) in the team, and now the world gets to see the results.

I am going to give nothing away about the ‘plot’, because it’s just so deliciously ingenious and I don’t want to rob you of a single moment’s pleasure in discovering how magnificently cunning and stealthy is their manipulation of events, times and places in its unfolding. Suffice it to say, Lenson’s triumphant direction of a fiendishly complicated web of strands in the story, punctuated with near-perfection by Waddington’s 300 or so lighting cues, is a miracle of stagecraft and a richly deserved reward for the years of craft they have between them.

Superhero at Southwark OPlayhouse
Michael Rouse in Superhero. Photo: Alex Brenner

Bearing the entire responsibility for the telling of this tale is the super hero of the hour, Colin Bradley, a tame and dull figure, a kind of drab Lawrence from ‘Abigail’s Party’, in many ways an unattractive and unlikeable figure: craftily, these negative qualities are stitched into his personality to provide the ‘conflict’ any good drama needs. Played – with razor-sharp accuracy, and split-second timing – by Michael Rouse, he goes on one hell of a journey. Rouse has to be all things to all demands of the plot, whether that be in earnest dramatic acting, or in roust-about show-tune stomping mode, without ever actually leaving the stage he has to get into, and out of, various items of costume (also de Grey’s), move the furniture around like a team of ASMs, and impersonate a number of other characters in the story. (If anybody is looking for a cheap touring show, I think this could be it!) He has an ‘actor’s’ rather than a ‘singer’s’ voice, and there is a little ordinariness to his dancing, but that gives greater impact to the moments when he flies across the stage in inspired flourishes. His performance is full of surprises, not least in his brilliant transmogrification of props in an apparently quasi-naturalistic design.

Crucially, the impeccable structure of Conley’s script – and the precise clarity with which it is articulated by the team – is the chief joy of this event. There is epic sweep to this story, and it is afforded all the dignity the stage can bestow upon it. Aristotle would be pleased. The lush, rhythmically propulsive, melodically appealing music is bravely served by MD Joe Bunker (keys), Molly Lopresti (percussion… and just you wait to hear the brilliant scope of the arrangements), and the Bass of Stephen Street. Finlay’s score embraces a vibrant palette of styles, all chosen wisely and presented with judicious refinement: while there might be the occasional feel of predictability in the delineation of such an ‘average’ character as the ‘hero’, it is certainly deliberate, and Finlay manages the different demands of arioso and set numbers with consummate conviction.

Mr Sondheim, I think you’re going to love this. Oh, and I think they’re looking for a publisher, too.

Until 22 July 2017


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