REVIEW: The Verb To Love, Old Red Lion Theatre ✭✭✭

The Verb To Love a new musical at the Old Red Lion Theatre

The Verb, To Love
The Old Red Lion Theatre
1 May 2014
3 Stars
Review by James Garden

The Verb, To Love is a curious and wonderful new musical currently playing at the Old Red Lion Theatre. It’s easy to be impressed by the show’s sole author, Andy Collyer. The plot is clearly taken somewhat from the man’s life, which is, on some level, impressive full stop. Few authors are comfortable “putting it all out there” so blatantly—especially when the story is his own relatively unsuccessful love life and the journey to discovering that one doesn’t need a boyfriend or partner to be validated as a human being. The score is extremely intelligent, with little nuggets of knowing humour for an audience well versed in musical theatre. From its side jabs at Godspell, to the fact that the notification noise on his online dating app is a direct quote from Gypsy (“I had a DREAM!, anyone?) Jason Robert Brown plays a cameo in a few places, as well (the repetition of “it’s over, it’s done,” might as well be a quotation from The Last Five Years—in fact, at first glance, this show could be seen as the gay monologue version of The Last Five Years. And more power to it, for that.)

The lead character, Simon, played by Martin Neely is rather lovable, if depressingly overly romantic. It’s a successful performance, through and through. He is utterly watchable. Gareth Bretherton, as the boytoy turned husband, Ben, plays the difficult role of being the piece’s pit band and love interest.

However, it is Ben’s introduction as an actual stage presence that commences the structural unease of the book. As we sit through the first 35 minutes or so, thoroughly enjoying Martin Neely’s performance, an audience has crafted a Ben in our minds—what all good one man show’s do is paint a mental picture. Simon is telling us a story, and that seems to be the way the show is going. Simon and Ben even get married, and we see that event, not on stage, but in our heads. Then, Ben shows up on stage, or rather, a light is shined on him, considering he’s been on stage the whole time playing the piano, only to break up with Simon, leaving him decimated.

Unfortunately, this is where the show’s style begins to clash with itself. It sets up an expectation, that the audience is going to listen to a storytelling piece, which is all well and good, and we’re enjoying it, and then the jarring second man shows up, entirely just to break up with our narrator and lead. It is, for lack of a better word, unsettling, and not in a way that helps the narrative. Our trust in the narrator is broken, in some way, because he’s led us to this extremely unexpected point, only for a brief moment, and then becomes narrator again. Audiences like to know what kind of show they’re seeing. If an author can upend that expectation well, then congratulations, but this uneven addition of a second on stage presence happens too little, too late, to be a clever move.

For a show that seems to be about learning to love oneself, without needing another for validation, it is somewhat ironic that it requires that other person to be on stage. It almost feels as if Collyer stops trusting in his own ability to allow the one character to tell the story. But all writers must learn to surgically strike their darlings, if they’re not quite working. It’s not as if Bretherton’s performance isn’t great—he’s extremely watchable—but when a show’s final song is called “Strong Alone,” isn’t it a bit ironic that it has to end as a duet?

At the end of Sondheim’s “Company,” Bobby realizes he needs to stop being a third wheel and actually find someone to connect to, because, to Sondheim at least, being alone is not being alive. This show seems to take a slightly more mature view, that loving oneself is actually just as important, if not moreso, than finding another to love you. Because, not to be glib, as RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love someone else?”

Hopefully, if this show is remounted, which it absolutely should be, perhaps its author will learn to love the red pen a bit more.

The Verb To Love plays at The Old Red Lion Theatre until 23rd May 2015

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