Monthly Archives: October 2020

Bubble – Nottingham Playhouse

Bubble - Nottingham Playhouse

The pandemic has had an incalculable effect on the theatre industry, the cost of which may not be known for many years, but as venues slowly reopen it has encouraged greater innovation as productions seeks new ways of engaging with audiences. When the National Theatre launched its free At Home series back in April it predicated what may yet be one of the most significant shifts in the way we consume and engage with live theatre. The hybrid model of live performance and online streaming through Zoom, YouTube, Facebook and other platforms is fulfilling a demand for culture that local lockdowns and travel restrictions continue to impede. Whether this is a temporary change as ‘needs-must’ or true democratisation of the form resulting in a longer term change to the way theatre is created and shared remains to be seen.

During the summer it has been regional theatres who truly grasped the nettle, simultaneously maximising the opportunities presented by social media and video calling platforms to produce new work in line with social distancing regulations while promoting their name in what is too-often a London-centric industry. The potential impact of this should not be underestimated and while the in-person experience is virtually impossible to replicate (although the Old Vic’s In Camera version of Faith Healer did just that), being able to watch a show from London, Glasgow, even Vancouver for a reduced ticket fee without the prohibitive costs of travel and accommodation has done much to welcome new audiences. If we want the landscape of theatre to look different in the post-pandemic world, be more inclusive of different voices and support a new generation of theatremakers then this more flexible approach to accessibility will be vital.

With a number of venues across the country now partially reopened, the theatre business model has certainly changed and last week Nottingham Playhouse began its three-week Unlocked Festival with a series of dance, music, comedy and theatre performances allowing Covid-safe attendance in its auditorium. One of the highest profile events is a hybrid production, performed in-house and live streamed over the weekend to a potential international audience – a new James Graham comedy about life in lockdown.

Bubble is described as a ‘scratch’ production, running for just three performances with minimal set and props presented in paired back style. This simplicity allows for social distancing on and off stage while foregrounding the text and the audience’s ability to remember and imagine the familiar scenarios of recent events. Like David Hare’s new piece for the Bridge, Beat the Devil, the human impact of the last few months are explored, staged against the larger canvas of political shifts, medical urgency and social change that frame the lives of Ashley and Morgan who decide after one date on the eve of lockdown whether to quarantine together.

A James Graham play is always distinguished by its impeccable structure, a strong frame that keeps the audience safely within the world of the story without ever having to worry where the playwright is taking us, while creating solid support for the development of scenarios within which the charactersisation can operate. Bubble has two supporting walls, one is an alternating ‘Bubble’ and ‘Apart’ narrative that charts opposing versions of the same relationship depending on the couple’s initial decision. The other, as in Hare’s play, is time, using the chronology of the pandemic to situate moments in the play as external realities play-out against the developing personal connection.

These interlinking effects are extremely successful in building consistent personalities for Morgan and Ashley across the two timelines while detailing the effects of claustrophobia and disappointment that being trapped at home alone or together engenders. Initially, there is a straightforward switch between the parallel plots which is replicated on stage by Director Adam Penford who spotlights the actors and has them switch places on the stage to give the audience a visual clue to the relevant scenario – also flashed as titles onto the rear wall throughout. At first the side-by-side box effect of the Zoom camerawork misses that signposting until the operator cuts to full-stage mode between scenes, but the play’s structural clarity means it is clear enough and perhaps would be even more intriguing without it, as the emotional ebb and flow between the protagonists morphs and overlaps as these two experiences emerge.

Graham also begins to explore variety within his structure to create greater complexity, running two perspectives from the same scenario back-to-back with a momentary beat between them to indicate time passing, or sometimes opposing versions of the same month have just a breath between them, as though one conversations flows neatly into its complementary interpretation. Keeping track of which part of the relationship we are in and when becomes part of the fun as neither evolves quite as you or the characters expect given they begin as virtual strangers (and in one scenario remain virtual strangers of another kind).

Much of Graham’s work in the last few years has focused on the anatomy of major institutional and societal structures, looking particularly at where power lies and how it is used to benefit those who hold it. This House and Labour of Love were concerned with the all-to-compromised business of government at Parliamentary and local party level, while Ink and Quiz considered the influence of the media and the uneven distribution of justice. By necessity and purposefully, Bubble has more in common with Graham’s earlier, more intimate work largely presented at the Finborough Theatre and other fringe venues that more sharply focused on personal interactions between individuals against a political background that less overtly intrudes into their lives.

Plays such as The Man that used a box of receipts as the basis for a revealing personal monologue and the beautiful Sons of York, about three generations of the same family navigating death and masculine expectations of grief, considered the impact of close relationships with partners and family members that are affected by external economic and social contexts but the plays themselves were not overtly concerned with exploring them. And while Bubble appears on the large Nottingham Playhouse stage, Zoom at least, gives it an intimacy redolent of these earlier works as two people navigate almost fearfully towards and around one another without any certainty about what they will find in their chosen partner or ultimately what it will reveal about themselves.

But the political still persists in the air around Bubble which, like Hare’s play, will remain a valuable insight into the day-to-day experience of the pandemic as the characters respond to its unfolding. Morgan and Ashley argue about reactions to the Prime Minister’s illness, they debate the devastating consequences for the hospitality industry, job losses and the disproportionate effects of poverty while George Floyd’s death sparks an passionate discussion in both timelines about physical participation in the Black Lives Matter protests. Much of this is managed with far more sophistication and conversational flare than Hare’s angry but clunky recitation of facts, addressing some of the biggest issues in a way that the feels natural, albeit slightly different, for both sets of characters.

Other classic Graham traits are evident throughout including plenty of references to pop culture as the couple compare opinions on Love Island and Bake Off, discuss Eurovision, dance, joke that video calling equates to the villains’ prison in Superman and check they have enough toilet roll and pasta to survive. Eight months on, we may be hazier about how odd the rapidly evolving language of the pandemic seemed in March, but Graham finds plenty of comedy in scenes where the characters try out words and phrases like ‘furlough’ ‘Zoom’ and ‘social distance’ for the first time, while mocking the idea of talking to colleagues and friends on screen before, later, becoming jaded by the intensity of living through a camera.

Ashley is perhaps the easiest character to sympathise with, at least initially, who in both scenarios is more laid back and in some ways more rational. Owning a ‘micropub’, in the bubble scenario she is clearly unnerved by Morgan’s studio flat with its lack of privacy which leads to a more contentious experience than expected. Not openly romantic, Pearl Mackie plays Ashley as more level-headed, able to stay relatively calm despite the encroachment of her personal space and better able to navigate Morgan’s changing moods and needs as time drags on. Mackie also makes Ashley seem braver in the bubble, increasingly voicing her opinions and intentions with certainty as the close proximity to Morgan becomes more frustrating.

There are consistencies in Mackie’s performance in the ‘apart’ timeline, retaining that same independence and positivity but tempered by long periods of enforced loneliness and fear of the outside that reduce some of the choices she had made in the bubble version. Mackie makes Ashley’s responses more varied as she is both inhibited by the distance from the woman she is trying to know through a webcam, leading to disagreement, but also more willing to explore her feelings as the pair develop a different kind of boldness that gives them a freedom to explore their romantic and sexual connection, something which barely figures in the parallel world of permanent proximity.

Jessica Raine’s Morgan seems less at ease with herself and her over-excitement in the early stages of both scenarios makes it harder for the audience to warm to the character. But during the play’s 70-minute running time, the performance becomes a little calmer and Morgan emerges more clearly. In the bubble strand, the initial elation and enthusiasm quickly wane as the reality of a stranger in her home becomes clear and their considerable personality, lifestyle and financial differences manifest as a growing disappointment in Morgan as Raine explores regret and obligation in her character’s responses. Later, this grows into a frustration as Morgan returns to work as a teacher and Raine introduces a barrier of fear using her role as a reason not to take more risks.

In the alternative ‘apart’ sections, Morgan is, like Ashley, both more reserved and more willing to take chances. With Graham providing a date-like structure, Raine is able to offer a version of Morgan at her best, free to display a more relaxed side to herself in the time-limited interactions with Ashley fueled by alcohol and her need for human connection. But that too changes over time and as the pair become more familiar with one another, Raine’s Morgan develops expectations and demands that her partner cannot fulfill, bringing the two versions of her summer experience in line.

It may be an urban myth, but everybody knows someone who knows someone who locked down with a stranger back in March and the ways in which Graham imagines how this story might have played-out is an enjoyable alternative to the Covid monologues. Above all, Bubble is a reminder that the events of 2020 will profoundly shape who we become, whether it be theatres finding new ways to reach their audiences, social movements making their mark or individuals reassessing their personal choices. When we eventually try to make sense of all this, Graham will be the playwright to do it.

Bubble was performed at Nottingham Playhouse on 23-24 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Ammonite and the Period Drama Heroine

Ammonite Film Poster

In a tricky year for cinema, the London Film Festival has been a positive force in the last ten days and while the BFI have taken a scaled-back approach, reducing the usually 300 films to just 50-odd full length features, combining a handful of well-managed in-person screenings with a vast digital output has ensured the event has remained a cultural highlight. And while the stars and creatives have been prevented from attending, supplying pre-recorded Zoom discussions in their stead, the variety of the programme, its topicality in presenting diverse voices and the BFI’s commitment to creating a truly international and thoughtful selection has made this a different but nonetheless engaging event.

Combining the desire to showcase new perspectives, hidden stories and innovative film-making approaches, this year’s Closing Gala was Francis Lee’s second feature Ammonite, the dual story of scientist Mary Anning whose fossilised discoveries in Lyme Regis is revealed alongside an intimate relationship with Charlotte Murchison, the wife of a collector and archaeologist who approaches Mary as a pupil and leaves his spouse in her care.

Lee’s film picks up on some of the key features of his beloved debut movie God’s Own Country in its presentation of the craggy brutality of the landscape against which individual reticence is tested, while the dominance of nature is shown to exert itself against the inability of the protagonists to resist. This displays both in enduring the unforgiving elements and in their own irresistible personal inclinations neither of which can be dominated or overcome.

Relocating to the past, Ammonite attempts to do several things in recasting the nineteenth-century costume drama – usually adapted from the era’s novels – to include a narrative built around a same-sex relationship that is treated with the same degree of tenderness and passion as any other, while also rethinking the hidden history of female achievement in our understanding of the process and progress of scientific achievement.

The Inspiring Period Drama Heroine

Classic novels are filled with admirable, inspiring heroines proving a characterful and intellectual match for their soon-to-be husbands or the story’s other male protagonist who they often outwit. Marion Halcombe, for example, in The Woman in White proves every bit as resourceful, determined and courageous as a man, an attribute the scheming Count Fosco pays tribute to. Likewise, her simpering tendencies aside, Molly Gibson in Wives and Daughters becomes a true partner for Roger Hamley, sharing his love of natural history in which they work side-by-side. And across nineteenth-century writing in particular we see spirited female leads from the mischievous Becky Sharp in Vanity Fare living by her wits, the more muted feminism of governess Jane Eyre and even the gaggle of lively Austen creations of which Elizabeth Bennett is most beloved. But none of these women who in every other respect can boast agency, psychological depth and rounded personalities can claim to have truly independent means, able to exist alone in a man’s world.

And women do work or live apart from men in classic novels, so alongside the governesses and maids dependent on their master’s whims, there are female thieves and barmaids in Dickens, gentlewomen with modest incomes but ridiculous personalities like Mrs Bates in Emma, women who have fallen on hard times and turned to prostitution like Fantine in Les Miserables and women who work in factories or as farmhands as Elizabeth Gaskell and Thomas Hardy portray. But entrepreneurial spirit is far less likely, perhaps seen only in Helen in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall who sets herself up as a ‘beggarly painter’ as her husband sneers.

What we see so rarely in literature – and thereby in period drama adaptations – is the independent woman earning a living in a role equivalent to a man’s where scientific endeavor is the only means of putting food on the table, so this depiction of Mary Anning as the sole breadwinner is a valuable one. And while Francis Lee has based his film on a real person, through this semi-fictionalised and heavily augmented account of Mary’s relationship with Charlotte Murchison, Ammonite offers a rare and real life example of a female period drama protagonist not ultimately heading for marriage (or helping someone else find it) or being ‘rescued’ in the tradition sense from her otherwise impecunious existence. She instead exists purely on her own economic terms as an expert paleontologist and while she wants not part of the society her work offers, that male characters seek-out her exhibits and expertise is important.

The Scientific Woman

Yet, in a wider look at cultural representations of real-life scientific women, they are often portrayed as serious, often difficult sometimes awkward personalities battling as much against the stymieing effect of male colleagues as the various research challenges they undertake. Take Rosalind Franklin in Anna Ziegler’s play Photograph 51 a woman whose contribution to the discovery of DNA’s structure plays out against her fractious relationship with Maurice Wilkins whose work she is expected to support rather than surpass. And while the play gave hints of the warmth Franklin’s personality may have contained, its stage presentation was framed within male repression and studious dedication to her work.

The same may be said of Anning in Ammonite who has a shop and workspace where she sells her beach finds to tourists eager for shell-bordered mirrors and equivalent tat. But she remains a figure in self-imposed exile, though still encumbered by the masculine-defined limits of society, making most of her income selling more substantial fossil discoveries to private collectors and museums who hastily erase her name from any record of the object and replace it with their own. Repeatedly we see Mary scraping dutifully away at the remains of sea creatures lodged in the rocks and pebbles discovered during her beach combing exercises, and in a throwaway moment we learn the skill was inherited from her father, long since deceased – a man shaped her and men hold her back.

These representations of Franklin and Anning are not necessarily incorrect, but they are consistent with one another and the wider individualistic studiousness that is always attached to depictions of women in science. Unusually, however, Lee focuses on the intimacy of Mary’s effortful process, the precision and concentration of a skilled craftsman slowly and painstakingly exposing her archaeological finds, drawing useful parallels with both Charlotte’s more typical period drama accomplishments as she sews flowers onto a handkerchief that emphasis how limited the presentation of women has been within the genre. There are also comparisons to be inferred with the growing romantic connection between the two women; where once Mary only felt a passion for her work she soon redirects some of that intensity and energy into Charlotte. But while the film perhaps wants us to see the presentation of a same-sex relationship as its most subversive assault on the period drama cliches, it is Mary’s independent and self-sustaining career that feels most progressive here.

The Natural World Metaphor

Aligning the wildness of nature and the intensity of human relationships is becoming one of Lee’s trademarks and like some of the great novelists of the nineteenth-century the windswept vigour of the English countryside and coast becomes an allegory for the raging emotions that emerge from his characters. But, like the Brontes, Hardy and Eliot to a degree the hardness of the landscape and the buffeting elements is reflected in the often unreachable hardness of the characters, at least as his films begin.

Here a weather-beaten Mary stalks the rugged beach at Lyme Regis that is difficult for her to traverse. Its beautiful but merciless in its way, muddy and cold as the scientist is battered by high winds, drizzle and sea spray in dogged pursuit of her work. The flinty Mary is no happier at home in the few simply furnished rooms behind the shop where she lives with her grief-filled mother Molly (Gemma Jones). It is a lodging with little personality and several times we see Mary shivering in multiple layers in a spartan bedroom. Even the shop with its frosted windows and haphazard, dusty display barely looks like a retail environment.

The association between the rocks that Mary excavates and her own buried humanity is an obvious one but the exterior provides further associations with the interior experience of the characters. Framed against the uneven cliffs and jagged edges, Mary is downright unfriendly to both Roderick Murchison in his first combing visit and later to the near-silent Charlotte who is unceremoniously dismissed. But the latter’s failed attempt at seabathing which batters against her releases a recklessness in both women that Lee portrays as an inevitable and irrefutable outcome of their proximity.

Lyme Regis is quite the literary catalyst. Famously enraging the smoldering embers of Captain Wentworth’s love for Anne Elliot in Persuasion as well as the admiration of Mr Elliot, it was also location of secret assignations and yearning looks in the The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Here it serves much the same purpose in stoking the fervor between Mary and Charlotte. And Lee, as in God’s Own Country draws a direct line between the landscape and the sexual desire exhibited by his characters, their needs as much a part of the natural world as Mary openly urinating at the beach and the creatures she finds imprisoned in the rocks.


Both Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan give excellent performances as slightly damaged figures eventually emboldened by their relationship. Winslet is especially good as the consistently cool Mary, who appears to have lost enthusiasm for anything but her work, a misanthrope refusing to insert herself into the world. In an understated performance Winslet is credible as the expert paleontologist with both an intellectual and practical understanding of her subject that eludes most others in the film and the scenes in which Mary uncomplainingly scowers the beach or deals with her disapproving mother are full of the texture of a quiet but disillusioned life.

Winslet’s approach to her character’s passion is equally muted, framed in hesitancy and fear of rejection that is sympathetically rendered especially in the hints of a previous relationship with Fiona Shaw’s Elizabeth that has left Mary hurt and wary of similar intimacy. The only time she allows Mary to abandon herself is during the sex scenes so even at the end the character has retained much of her desire for control of her own life, admirably and perhaps stubbornly refusing to define herself through the higher-class woman she attracts.

Ronan’s character (though a more recognisable period drama cipher) takes a far larger turn during the film developing from a near-silent young bride who, it is suggested, may have recently lost a baby with her bossy and insensitive husband Roderick (James McArdle), to a sprightly and contended presence. Ronan is very good in showing both extremes and while Charlotte’s character has relatively little depth or expansiveness in comparison to Mary, the development from tremulous and pale figure to society hostess is a convincing one.

The relationship between the two women has a coming-of-age dynamic as the older Mary engages with the far younger Charlotte – a notion reflected in the age gap between Mary and Elizabeth – but while the sex is naturalistic and graphic the day-to-day romance lacks the impulsive chemistry and tender intimacy that existed between Johnny and Gheorghe in God’s Own Country – although fans will be delighted to see Alex Secareanu in a cameo as a doctor.

Ammonite is in many ways a conventional period drama with bonnets, big skirts and dissatisfied women looking for love in a world of male prosperity. And while its central relationship intends to diversify the genre, it is the presence of a truly independent pioneering woman that sets this film apart, revealing one of the many female researchers who helped to advanced scientific study but have been all but written out of history.

Ammonite was previewed during the London Film Festival and opens for wider release on 13 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Songs for a New World – London Palladium

This weekend the London Palladium became the first central London theatre to offer live performance after successfully advocating new audience safety measures during the summer and conducting a trial event for journalists a couple of months ago. Songs for a New World written by Jason Robert Brown was performed live on stage for one day only, a matinee and evening show that once again puts musical theatre at the top of theatrical agenda.

Staged without sets or scenary this felt like a cabaret-concert performance with the band placed on stage and a smattering of chairs that remained empty for one final surprise. Its dual purpose worked well, giving the performers the freedom to move around the space and create variation in the way numbers were staged, while also nodding to the still empty chairs and venues around the country as restrictions thin companies to essential teams and reduce audience capacity.

And while this industry has been indirectly described as not viable by the government, they have vastly underestimated not just the economic and creative contribution of the performing arts but also the pure joy it brings to millions of patrons. That joy was more than evident among the uproarious Palladium crowd on Sunday afternoon as an extended ovation of applause and whooping followed a (presumably) pre-recorded announcement that the show was due to start. The musical itself became a participatory event as performer introductions, song openers, long notes and character quirks were greeted with the same rapture among an audience starved of indoor live performance and, in spite of the reduced capacity, making as much noise as a full audiotorium.

To be back in the London Palladium and a traditional West End theatre clearly means so much to everybody in the room and Jason Robert Brown’s music provides the perfect uplift, a beautiful song cycle that could almost have been designed to galvanise a more than half-empty theatre space. Drawing on Motown, funk, blues and gospel as well cabaret and old Broadway, Songs for a New World is a collection of thematically related numbers about the difficulty of relationships and the possibilities of new beginnings where change and breaking free of old patterns is something to embrance.

And London is enjoying a mini Brown revival with The Last 5 Years not only resuming live performance at Southwark Playhouse after a terrific staging earlier this year, but now extending its run and offering a filmed stream in late November open to an international audience. Now, with this one-day revival of Songs for a New World, previously performed by most of this cast online during lockdown, Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics and music are already shaping whatever our new theatre world will look like.

This Palladium production divided into two 45-minute Acts with a 30-minute interval (arguably superfluous but it does eek out the joy of it) is an outstanding musical experience that becomes a part-theatre, part-concert show that places as much emphasis on the music as the singers and characterisation. It feels like a live gig as the toe-tapping sounds of piano primarily (for which Brown especially likes to compose), drums, bass, keyboard, cello and guitar fill the room accompanied by five extraordinary voices.

As musicals along Shaftesbury Avenue look set to reopen before Christmas with Six, There’s Something About Jamie and a freshly announced return for Les Miserables: The Staged Concert with last year’s brilliant cast, Songs for a New World serves as an all-to-brief reminder of how it feels to listen to live music in an enclosed, traditional theatre space, feeling the sounds thrum through the seats, filling the air around you as it echoes and reverberates in a room full of people – even as few allowed to be in this one – responding to every note and beat.

It opens with the title number performed by Cedric Neal, Rachel Tucker, Rachel John and David Hunter arriving onstage one-by-one and lit dramatically by a circle of rear lights like a film set. The New World is a song the recurs throughout the performance setting the tone for a selection of work about key moments where decisions are being made by individuals and couples that have potentially life-changing consequences, some of which, as this first piece suggests, can come as a surprise.

There is considerable variety across this abstract but interlinked selection of stories and messages, and Brown plays with narrative perspective, dramatic intensity and musical styles to create range and depth across Songs for a New World that make it ideally suited to this more simplistic concert-staging where direct connections between numbers are intangible and songs have their own individual impact as well as a collective effect as a single musical.

Some of the most crowd-pleasing numbers are entirely comic and in the first half Just One Step performed by Tucker is staged on a step ladder in lieu of a window ledge as a harassed wife insists she is leaving her neglectful husband, quite literally taking her first steps down the ladder as she bemoans his treatment of her. Tucker proves a comic delight throughout, also bringing an amusing acidity to Surabaya-Santa, a early song in Act Two for an increasingly embittered Mrs Clause as she rails against husband Nick and drinks away her cares while clambering over the piano.

The audience is equally enchanted by the other solo performances including Cedric Neal’s soulful voice on King of the World, a man wanting to resume his rightful place in the hierarchy and leading Flying Home about repatriation. John’s voice is incredibly powerful earning some of the loudest cheers for the sensitive Christmas Lullaby that has a choral feel and particularly the rousing I’m Not Afraid of Anything in Act One that fills the auditorium with her defiant vocal. Completing the cast is David Hunter whose She’s Cries moves from a comic shrug to a more interior piece about the cost of love while later opens Act Two with The World Was Dancing in which Hunter emphasises the twin demands on his character to support his struggling father and his fiancee.

But some of the best moments in Songs for a New World are those that bring the different but complementary voices together to create moving and meaningful relationship portraits. One of the best is Hunter and John’s tender performance of I’d Give it All for You, a beautiful tale of two people gone their separate ways willing to sacrifice their now more exciting lives to be reunited once more. Hunter and Neale also performer the bouncier The River Won’t Flow while John and Tucker combine voices on Transition I / Stars and Moon that creates lots of different textures across the piece as the cast work together, frequently providing backing vocals and support for each other’s performances along the way.

There are some lovely surprises as the show unfolds, including a brief appearance from Shem Omari James partnering with Neale on the fantastic Act One finale The Steam Train as both play the same character dreaming of a future as a sports star, the inevitability and driving certainty of which they both evoke. James certainly holds his own during his brief appearance on stage adding a small choreographed dance section before dropping in for a later number. For the final song, The New World / Hear My Song director Séimí Campbell fills those empty chairs with a young choir who enhance the vocal power in the room creating a fitting spectacle to end the show.

Given the limitations of socially distanced performance for those onstage and no set, Campbell makes some interesting choices to keep the show moving while helping to create intimacy between the performers as songs demand. With boxes at the four corners of the stage and close to the piano, Campbell moved the singers around to create a balanced sound coming from all sides of the performance space. Sometimes clambering onto these boxes to create height, at others moving their microphone stand to different positions in all three portions of the stage as well as roaming with handheld mics which frees the performer to go where the story and their instinct takes them. Like a simply staged Shakespeare monologue, sometimes less is more; performer, writer, voice is all that is needed.

The entry process was a tad chaotic with four separate queues and little signage as lines stretched all the way round to Regent’s Street, so depending on which direction you come from you might find yourself in the wrong queue more than once. In theory, separate queues for each level of the theatre and the Box Office makes sense along with timed entry, but in reality this was the most arduous entry process among the handful of venues open so far, taking around 30-minutes to pass through the long queues to reach the momentary temperature and security checks.

The staff at the Palladium were absolutely doing their best, operating an untested system for a public audience for the first time and this will certainly refine with practice, hopefully before the venue stages its socially distanced pantomime. Other measures worked extremely well including roving ushers taking bar orders delivered to your seat and at last a contactless system for purchasing programmes. Miraculously, the show itself started precisely on time so credit to the Palladium team for managing the process as well as they did.

Musical theatre has the unusual ability to create a show’s tone and feeling in the space of a single song or even a few bars, a feat it can take hours to achieve in drama, and Jason Robert Brown is especially good at immersing his audience in the emotional complexity of his work almost instantly. That Songs for a New World doesn’t have a plot or successive narrative is entirely irrelevant to the connection the audience has to the patchwork of lives and moments that are both separately and collectively affecting.

That this incredible concert version appeared at the London Palladium for just two performances is the only tragedy here and audiences can only implore LW Theatres for an extended run as soon as possible. Musical Theatre really is shaping the new world and, after a considerable ovation that lasted for many minutes, it is wonderful to see just how many people long to be in these rooms once more.

Songs for a New World ran at the London Palladium on 11 October. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

After You – Tonight at the London Coliseum

After You - Tonight at the London Coliseum

Another week, another musical theatre innovation as Alex Parker and Katie Lam premiere a new piece of work as part of the Tonight at the London Coliseum series of concert performances managed by Stream Theatre. After a successful preview at Brasserie Zedel back in 2017, After You makes its first official West End appearance at the currently closed venue on St Martin’s Lane, using a little of the technique from other streamed performances such as the Old Vic’s In Camera productions to showcase the beautiful auditorium while making space for new writing.

Running at only 55 minutes, After You is a brief but well constructed story about musical theatre’s favourite theme – love. But like The Last Five Years currently in revival at Southwark Playhouse, this story is less the straightforward tale of boy meets girl who live happily ever after than a two-hander that plays with convention to examine the nature and reliability of a connection generated between two people at a crossroads while considering grand notions of universal insignificance – to slightly misquote Rick Blaine at the end of Casablanca, ‘the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’.

Structurally, the story is set chronologically on two legs of a cruise ship travelling between London and New York in which the male and female characters meet accidentally. She is an American lawyer based in London heading home after her grandmother dies, he is a singer employed on the ship but looking for a big break in the US. Parker and Lam envisage a sequence of scenes told through book and songs in which the couple get to know each other on the outward voyage in Act One which lasts around 40-minutes, while the much shorter Act Two takes place 2 weeks later on the return journey as the consequences of their relationship play out.

In staging After You, director Jordan Murphy takes inspiration from the Old Vic, visually framing this story against the beautiful interior of the London Coliseum, placing the actors, musicians and cameras backwards on the stage. While theatres remained largely closed, streamed shows are as much a reminder of the venues themselves as the work being performed, but the decision also sits well with Parker and Lam’s attempts to contextualise the unfolding relationship between the unnamed couple, making them seem small in the looming emptiness of the auditorium behind them.

It is a tricky sell, creating an imaginary cruise ship with no scenery, sound effects or even the hint of tidal movement with the couple relocating from the arrivals hall to the lounge bars, their rooms and even the star-filled deck of the ship on a warm night. And there are no visuals to guide the audience through any of that, relying solely on the descriptions of time and place that the cast provide in the book and songs.

The Tonight at the London Coliseum series is not performed live which allows Murphy to make judicious use of cuts to advance the story more quickly than perhaps would be possible in a standard performance when time for set and costume changes would slow the pace. Given its origins in the intimate Brasserie Zedel space, Parker and Lam’s material has been constructed for a small venue without the trappings of a bigger staging where additional music or secondary characters would be required to cover periods when the primary cast are off-stage or need to swap location. The smaller scale created by streaming and the possibilities of pre-filmed editing techniques make these transitions far more practical than they would be in live performance.

The ways in which Murphy creates physical location is sparring but surprisingly evocative even in a venue as sizeable and ornate as the London Coliseum where opera and dance usually fill its stage. A performer in a coat wheels on a suitcase to indicate their arrival on the ship, a table appears with two glasses of wine for a getting-to-know you date while the lighting designer peppers the stage and the auditorium with star shapes under a purple light to imply the romantic night sky as the couple – again in coats – are drawn together on the deck of the liner. It is effectively done and while you may initially miss the bustle of other passengers, and the view of plush interiors or seascapes, very soon its absence barely registers at all.

Despite the lack of scenery and very few props, the musical never looks lost on this vast stage; at no point is the audience anywhere but on this cruise ship as a connection is forged between two strangers and with the audience. And that is down to the strength of character development. Parker and Lam have created two people who credibly sustain our attention and interest for an hour, giving them songs that evoke their interior lives and add sufficient shades of grey to suggest a more rounded emotional and physical existence beyond the immediate circumstances in which they find themselves.

The central couple are opposites of one another and their relationship is explored through the eight individual songs, some of which are briefly reprised as they must identify and then manage their growing feelings, and After You reveals these character insights through a series of duets and solo numbers that unfold like internal monologue. Unlike many love stories, the characters hardly ever sing to one another and duets depict the pair expressing similar or opposite feelings in isolation, revealing their thoughts to themselves and the audience alone which supports the misunderstandings and misdirection that drive Act Two.

It begins with This Time, a micro-character study that gives the viewer rapid insight into these two people as the journey begins. He is content with his life, happy to be where he is, living in the moment and hoping that nothing will change; she is unhappy, stuck in her own head and unable to find a way forward, unsure of what she really wants. And this song sets the scene for their interactions as the story unfolds through the second number as he bombards her with questions she seems reluctant to answer – notably the only time the couple share a song in which they actively converse – all the way through to song number eight the titular After You where both reflect on what might have been, him looking forward to a new start, her somewhat regretting the chance she didn’t take.

There is a melancholy to the music of After You with its classic musical theatre song styles performed richly by Parker on piano, guitarist Alex Hillman, bassist Adam Higgs, Will Hillman on violin and Dave Hornberger on cello who remain onstage throughout, the focus of cutaway shots in lieu of scene changes.

Parker and Lam decide not to make this a sung-through show and include a fair amount of dialogue that works very well in helping to build the relationship in a short amount of time. The writers have created a warm flirtiness between them that feels sweet and fairly realistic as these tentative friends debate the peculiarities of English idioms and develop a candidness that only strangers can experience where there are no consequences or feelings to hurt. Yet, there is no sense of the characters rushing into an emotional entanglement, the end of Act One leaves them considering a connection they haven’t outwardly expressed and it is only in the absence of one another that imaginations run wild, based on relatively little solid information. As Act Two opens, there is also a very well played argument as they talk over, contradict and rage at one another which heightens the tension well.

The female character is the more complex of the two as she navigates some difficult background circumstances that make her a reticent and sometimes self-destructive presence. There is an inner absence in the character that draws on the expanse and anonymity of America, explaining she is from a place “as nowhere as nowhere can be without being nowhere” and there are indications that her life in the UK is unhappily restricted to the ex-pat community where she hasn’t enjoyed living in London or even spent time understanding British culture, as her early conversations with him explain.

Performed by Alexia Khadime, she has a nervousness that is partially explained at the start of Act Two as the pair are sent in opposite directions, but sits permanently beneath the character who feels undeserving of attention or consideration. This gives Khadime the chance to show her range, exploring the excitement of the early meetings but also guilt, fear and anger as a frostiness creeps into the performance. The character makes an unlikely lawyer however, which would require a greater degree of certainty and confidence at least professionally assumed if not truly felt, but her logical, pessimistic approach contrasts well with the creative freedom of her fellow traveler.

Khadime’s voice is beautiful, making the most of the more emotionally insightful songs including her big number A World There to Discover in Act Two where she descries the missed opportunity. For the first time the character is vocalising the contrast between the life she had hoped for and the feeling of having left things too late, of missing the boat. There are tones of Sondheim here in her regrets, particularly The Road You Didn’t Take and while the character is far younger than Ben Stone, there is the same sense of having made a choice that she must abide be, knowing the rest of her life will never quite live-up to the fantasy of this one encounter.

After his superb performance as the firebrand Enjolras in last year’s Les Miserables: The Staged Concert Bradley Jaden plays an entirely different type of character, revealing a softer heart, happy to go with the flow but entirely caught off-guard by his connection to the lonely woman he meets aboard. He begins the show with a lie about his origins, feigning an American accent on the outward journey that he admits is to attract women, living a night time lifestyle of cruise performances and sleeping till 3pm. Like his partner, the essential goodness of the character means he never quite convinces as a lothario but Jaden uses those hidden depths to make the impact of the relationship feel credible in the remainder of the show.

This character is concerned with the bigger picture, thinking about himself in the context of the universe, fascinated by the night sky and the opportunities life presents. Seeking a permanent position in New York, Jaden gives him a playful quality, keen to enjoy every experience, eager to meet new people and to be an appealingly companion. But his emotional investment shifts and the more creative elements of his personality cause him to invest far more and quickly in the relationship that perhaps he expects, an aspect Jaden plays convincingly as the character runs away with the chance that presents itself.

His big number Voice Inside My Head is delightful, charting that alteration at the end of Act Two and (like Michael Sheen at the Old Vic) Jaden briefly turns his back to the camera to address the empty London Coliseum auditorium doubling as the great unknown. Unlike the female character, however, there is a sense of change in him during the grand finale number After You, and while he remains a positive force, the character is now open to a closer connection in a way that perhaps he wasn’t a few weeks before.

The 20-minutes of Act Two do need to be lengthened, either delaying the big revelation a little longer or finding some other way to bring the characters together for a time in the aftermath of the truth telling. And while some of the elements of this story will always require a simple live theatre staging, character investment is strong from the beginning, so much so that the slightly abrupt ending leaves the audience feeling the characters deserve just a little more time to reach a satisfying ending – though not a different one. In straightened circumstances, that a new piece of work is here at all is incredibly important and in a genre awash with love stories this small character-driven piece should have a bright future.

After You was performed as part of the Tonight at the London Coliseum concert series made available by Stream Theatre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

NB – A digital programme was unavailable so character names and song titles are assumed.

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