REVIEW: Yarico, London Theatre Workshop ✭✭✭

Yarico at the London Theatre Workshop
Liberty Buckland as Yarico and Alex Spinney as Thomas Inkle. Photo: Honeybunn Photography

London Theatre Workshop
3 March
3 Stars

According to the programme, this is “the love story that changed the course of history”, “one of the best known and most compelling anti-slavery narratives of the eighteenth century”, which “continued to be told well into the nineteenth century across the Caribbean and in the United States, where it was eventually subsumed by the indigenous story of Pocahontas.” Although the claim to have changed the course of history might be dubious, there is no doubt that the tale of Yarico has a potency and universality that makes it almost perfect subject matter for treatment as a musical or opera.

A shipwreck. A child, abandoned by her kind, left to be raised by natives, with only a book of Shakespeare as her link to “the real world”. A dissolute Englishman consumed with a gambling addiction, thrown overboard and washed ashore, to be saved by the beautiful, exotic heroine, the titular Yarico, both physically and spiritually. The sense of community, evident in the peaceful, happy natives who inhabit the island Yarico has called home most of her life. The sense of supreme dysfunction evident in the “cultured” lives and deeds of the “civilised” white folk from England. The various points where the two cultures collide. A moment when recklessness, borne out of unchecked stupidity, leads to a betrayal which destroys two lives, or seems to. A pregnancy in chains. A life of servitude. Ignorant and indifferently brutal slave owners. A chance at freedom. Betrayal of a different kind. A roaring fire. Redemption.

The narrative elements provide real scope for a work of dramatic intensity and musical exhilaration. Yarico, a new musical by Carl Miller (book and lyrics), James McConnell (score) and Paul Leigh (lyrics), now having its premiere season at the London Theatre Worksop, is a bravura attempt to fashion a musical for our times out of this tale from long ago. That it succeeds as well as it does is a testament to the vision of the creatives and McConnel’s score which, though inconsistent, contains many wonderful moments.

New musicals, like prize orchids, require lots of expensive and detailed care, if they are to bloom to full potential. Viewed as a workshop presentation, Emily Gray’s direction of Yarico succeeds in demonstrating the possibilities of the piece, and clearly shows what works and what does not. The good news is that even the sections which don’t work particularly well still work better, or at least no worse than, sequences in musicals now playing on the West End (such as the ghastly Harold Wilson or Mr Tooley sequences in Made In Dagenham) And it does this with minimal resources and maximum commitment.

Sarah Beaton provides a clever set – polished black surfaces and pieces of cane used to evoke an exotic atmosphere. It is simple but remarkably effective, and the use of cane turns out to be inspired as the action moves to a cane plantation. With no money for such things, the costumes also are very effective, and there is a sense to the pairings of various sorts of garments which establishes period and distinguishes between the various roles the cast play.

Zara Nunn, as musical director, maintains firm control and manages to achieve some excellent moments despite limited resources. Central to the score is the Percussion and Chris Brice’s work is exemplary; rhythmic and hypnotic, providing the spine to the musical accompaniment in a way that perfectly augments the narrative. There was excellent work from all members of the four person band, especially in the more melodious and stirring second Act. Nunn also brings a beautiful, warm and arresting vocal sound from the cast when singing the bigger anthems; the melodies and harmonies are given full value.

Stylised movement and stage pictures also contribute to the clarity of the story-telling. The tale jumps from place to place, from one set of characters to another, more than once, and Jeanefer Jean-Charles’ work as choreographer helps with all of this. Particularly in the more tribal sections, the movement is haunting and secures the interest of the audience without difficulty.

Some of Gray’s directorial choices did not seem to smoothly pave the way for the success of the work. Colour blind casting is ever present these days. But it does not always achieve the desired results. When an unfamiliar story is being told in a new way, and that story depends fundamentally on outdated thinking about skin colour, it is more than a little difficult to match the thinking to the playing when colour-blind casting comes into play. This was accentuated, in some respects, by the deployment of accents; there was not a consistency of approach which made following the plot easier. That said, after a while the techniques employed by Gray achieved a kind of consistency, so that, especially in the second Act, changes of costume and accent came to be part of the language of communication: it was not a case of black and white, but rather “Now, who is this?” when a scene or costume changed.

In its current form, the piece is too ponderous. The second Act is much more assured than the first Act and there needs to be attention given to paring the material back (in some cases, augmenting it) to focus on telling the story of Yarico herself. Almost as if there was some “Guide to writing Musical Theatre”, the book pays a deal of attention to two secondary characters, Cicero and Nono, but this is misguided. The time given to those characters could more sensibly be deployed in exploring Yarico’s life. This is not about the way in which those characters were played, but on the priorities of the story telling and the way to achieve best impact for the musical as whole.

Equally, McConnell’s score needs work in the first Act. The second Act demonstrates his ability to write excellent show tunes, ranging from comedic numbers which scene set beautifully (Chocolate, Take A Step) to rousing and thrilling big numbers (The Things We Carry With Us, The Same And Not The Same and Spirit Eternal). The first Act needs more of his care, especially in the music provided for the central male character, Yarico’s lover and betrayer, Thomas. That character needs music which reflects the ghosts which haunt him and the joy that Yarico brings him – his breakdown in The Dice Game could do with greater musical involvement for him – in a way, it’s the Javert’s Suicide moment for this character, graphic self-realisation overwhelming him. More attention in the music to the specific journey of the two lead characters would pay real dividends here.

What makes the entire experience worth seeing and savouring is the terrific central turn from Liberty Buckland as Yarico. Buckland has a wonderful voice, full of colour and expression, and she knows precisely how to use it to best effect. She is a clever, engaging actress too and she imbues her difficult role with real grace.

There is excellent character work from Melanie Marshall (Ma Cuffe), Tori Allen-Martin (Nona), Keisha Amponsa Banson (Jessica – a masterclass in making something from very little) and Charlotte E Hamblin (the ghastly Lady Worthy). Michael Mahoney is impressive as Frank and more than once one wondered what he might have made of Cicero, a part for which Jean-Luke Worrell seemed an unlikely choice.

Alex Spinney has an excellent, assured voice, light and agile, and he certainly has no difficulty playing the attractive leading man, but he seemed too pure and pretty for the kind of life and addictions that the story indicates make Thomas Inkle who he is. There was insufficient chemistry between Spinney and Buckland and that, together with an absence of musical material which properly gave insight into their lust/love/need for each other had the result that the character came across blander than must have been intended. Thomas is rough and jagged where Spinney is smooth and creamy; not ideal casting, but a performer to watch. Indeed, Spinney did excellent work in all of the other roles he played, especially in the Chocolate number.

On reflection, there seemed a real gulf between the Acts. As soon as the Second Act finished, I was keen to see it again, to hear that music again. Act One did not evoke the same level of heightened, involved interest. This is a question for the material – with focus, and some reworking and retuning, Yarico could be quite remarkable. The story is engaging (where else do you get a fusion of Shakespeare with slavery?), the characters are intriguing and the score is already excellent in many ways.

Kudos to producers John and Jodie Kidd for breathing life into this new musical. It is well worth seeing both for the talent in the cast and the potential to say, some time in the years to come, “I saw that first LTW production you know” in a West End foyer.

Yarico plays at the London Theatre Workshop until 28 March 2015.

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