“The Baker’s Wife” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Merci beaucoup to David Babani’s venue and director Gordon Greenberg for staging this musical theatre curio from the legendary Stephen Schwartz.

The Baker’s Wife is a sweet show with good songs and a great sense of humour. Schwartz and the book’s writer Joseph Stein are Francophiles both. There’s a clear affection for the source material – La Femme du boulanger by Marcel Pagnol and Jean Giono – that adds a warmth. And it is hard to imagine a better production for what is a deceptively complicated work.

The appeal is clear and the show unusual for Schwartz in being, very self-consciously, a chamber piece. There is an interesting tension between proclamations about small sensual moments said to encompass all our lives. And they really do mean everyone. The intimate Menier, with a superb set from Paul Farnsworth, reflects this ambition. The location might be a small village, upset by a new baker and his much younger wife arriving, but we see a lot of the locale and the cast numbers 19. It’s to Greenberg’s credit that not too many of the characters get lost. 

There are serious intentions. Genevieve, the wife in question, runs off with a younger man, leaving her devoted spouse, Aimable, devastated… and after such lovely songs, too. There are great numbers for both Lucie Jones and Clive Rowe, who take the roles, but their rather pat dilemma is not helped by the rogue she runs off with being a weak character (Joaquin Pedro Valdes, who sings wonderfully, is distinctly short changed). There’s a lot of sentiment, arguably an excess of slow numbers, and surely too many sincere looks with clasping hands between the cast. The lyrics are great, though perhaps a touch repetitious. 

Lighter moments are better – and these aren’t just comedic. There’s a powerful thread of nostalgia and melancholy to the piece, exemplified by a fine performance from café owner Denise, played by the always excellent Josefina Gabrielle, that is surprisingly airy. And the show is funny. The triumvirate of teacher, curate and mayor make great roles for Mark Extance, Matthew Seadon-Young and Michael Matus, who are all superb. There’s fun, too, for Norman Pace and Liam Tamne, playing old rivals who become friends. And a highlight is a song called ‘Bread’, which is rather brilliant.

It’s a lot, though, and, despite admirable efforts from Rowe in particular, The Baker’s Wife doesn’t quite come together. For a start, the story has too easy a solution. While an effort is made with the women in the show, including the mayor’s three “nieces” (one of whom he, ahem, offers to the baker to cheer him up) their group number, entitled ‘Romance’, feels forced and none of the female characters as vivid. Since the aim is to show us a whole community, that’s a big fault. For all the strong songs – very well performed – there isn’t enough to take away. Sketchy rather than slim, there are laughs and plenty of heart-felt moments, but the pleasure is from a fine production of a show seldom seen. 

Until 14 September 2024

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photos by Tristram Kenton

“Slave Play” at the Noël Coward Theatre

The anticipation surrounding the London premiere of Jeremy O Harris’ 2018 play is possibly to its detriment. As one the most Tony award-nominated works of all time, with a policy of “black out” performances that has garnered plenty of press, expectations are high. There is plenty to praise – not least excellent performances – with a script full of ideas and conviction. But there might also be a little disappointment.

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Aaron Heffernan and Annie McNamara

Slave Play is long and just a little slow. While Robert O’Hara’s direction is focused, and the acting riveting, the structure is laboured. There are three mixed race couples, each acting out role plays with overtly racist themes. It’s fun to see the fantasies slip (Aaron Heffernan and Annie McNamara do especially well with this), and to see how ideas about eroticism vary and move from awkward to traumatic. Trouble is, we get it in triplicate.

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Irene Sofia Lucio, Fisayo, Chalia La Tour and James Cusati-Moyer

It turns out all six are enacting ‘Antebellum Sexual Performance Therapy’ and they are being supervised! It’s a great twist. But as we are introduced to a fourth couple, researching how race affects relationships, everyone has an awful lot to say. Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio play these roles broadly and are very funny. But as all the characters fight against anhedonia and alexithymia, the satire is blunt. And it isn’t a surprise when one couple, played brilliantly by Fisayo Akinade and James Cusati-Moyer (who get tears as well as laughs), end up splitting up. Harris allows us to be sceptical with skill, but makes the audience work hard.

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Olivia Washington and Kit Harrington

Turns out our focus is the final couple: Kaneisha and her British husband Jim, played by Olivia Washington and Kit Harington. The latter might have a little too much to do, although Harington’s performance is commendable. Jim is the most reluctant to engage in everything going on, taking particular objection to the term “process”, yet he is not quite complex enough to convince. But this final scene is extremely powerful, almost a monologue for Washington, and brilliantly delivered, with Harington nude for a long time. It brings a lot of clarity to the project – with the need to be listened to the important takeaway.

While the “raw and nasty” of this therapy is relative, and the middle-class milieu is well observed, any resolution seems slight. None of the characters is a monster, but they do all seem entitled. And there’s a lot of OCD – the fascinating idea that music triggers the characters leads to the production’s startling sound design and brilliant work from Lindsay Jones. I just wonder if they don’t all come across as a bit barmy? Maybe the potential to dismiss their pain is the play’s challenge?

While valid and important, how interesting somebody else’s therapy is might be a problem, especially if you are being served three doses of it. It seems obvious that Harris wants to make a wider point. That’ll be the reason for a cross-section of couples. What you get from such a lot of material depends on your own circumstances. It will be interesting to see how the play is received in the UK, and by people better qualified than I. But with so much to listen to, Slave Play should do well as a conversation piece… Maybe it really is the process that counts.

Until 21 September 2024

www.slaveplaylondon.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Skeleton Crew” at the Donmar Warehouse

Marking the end of Michael Longhurst’s excellent tenure as artistic director, this UK première of Dominique Morisseau’s play is classy in two senses. The production is of the highest quality – director Matthew Xia is justly confident with the terrific script as well as his talented cast. And the subject matter might be said to be class – Skeleton Crew is a specific study of blue-collar workers in Detroit that is detailed, intelligent and moving.

The factory breakroom setting, with dramatic lighting and sound design (from Ciarán Cunningham and Nicola T Chang respectively), is an efficient forum for debates about unionism and moral dilemmas. As redundancy approaches for the characters, with the factory downsizing to the titular staffing levels, this working world might remind you of plays by Arthur Miller or Lynn Nottage, but Morisseau has her own voice – with plenty to say.

It is with its characters that Skeleton Crew excels. There are four heroes here – Dez, Faye, Reggie and Shanita – complex figures who are all magnificent creations. Although they present different approaches, with plenty of argument, none feels like a mouthpiece.

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Racheal Ofori and Branden Cook

Dez is struggling to set up his own business, his desperation leading to a brilliant plot point, while Shanita is pregnant, a literally growing cause for concern. In the roles, Branden Cook (an astonishing professional debut) and Racheal Ofori stand out, brilliantly revealing their characters’ complexities, making us care about them and adding wit. Reggie, the supervisor who knows first that the plant is closing, is a fantastic study in stress from Tobi Bamtefa, with a visceral performance full of fear, anger and confusion. The trio are figures of great dignity – proud about work, with a sense of purpose from productivity. And I haven’t yet mentioned Faye.

Long-serving union rep, friend and mentor to Reggie, Faye is the linchpin of the play. It is to the credit of all that she does not dominate the show. This could well be a career defining role for Pamela Nomvete, who gives a performance marked by clarity as well as power. Faye’s no-nonsense views and her care for others guide her colleagues – and the audience. But the character has problems, with a twist that brought tears to my eyes. Faye is not a victim – her insistence on this will give you goosebumps. But we are allowed to question whether that praiseworthy pride might also be damaging.

Morisseau can escalate tension with the best of them. But there’s also an interesting take on understatement that Xia is careful to preserve. Anti-climax is mentioned by Shanita, whose dreams (beautifully recounted by Ofori) add melancholic touches, while dramatic moments are curtailed for the sake of realism. And note that Faye doesn’t want Reggie to “write a happy ending” for her. There’s nothing twee in Skeleton Crew. Its power comes from how convincing it is. But how much I hope the future goes well for all its characters indicates how strong the piece is.

Until 24 August 2024

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Your Lie in April” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Another adaptation of a Japanese hit has arrived in London, this time based on the eponymous manga series by Naoshi Arakawa. This musical version shares the aim and, arguably, the weakness of a concert production called Death Note from much of the same creative team – the show focuses on fans. Such admirers are numerous, and good luck to them, but other audience members might struggle.

Like a lot of coming-of-age romances, Your Lie in April is unashamedly intense. The book (by Riko Sakaguchi and then Rine B.Groff) is efficient. There’s big drama, with tragedy (I heard a lot of sniffling) and love triangles; all exacerbated by the pressure that these youngsters are training as musicians. Just how repressed the kids feel, might raise eyebrows depending on your age. But there’s a lot for the cast to work with and work hard they unquestionably do.

Zheng Xi Yong takes the lead as musical prodigy Kōsei, the “Piano King” grieving for his domineering mother (whose ghost pops up rather too often) and on a journey of self-discovery. Every song is given its all, the performer seemed genuinely overwhelmed by the end of the night. Kaori is the love interest, a rebellious violinist who wants to duet with Kōsei, but who has a sad secret. The character is flat but Mia Kobayashi, who takes the part, makes her feisty and even has a stab at adding humour. Best of all, Kobayashi has a beautiful voice – this is a superb professional debut. If the chemistry between Kōsei and Kaori isn’t great, that’s OK…we’re supposed to find them an odd couple. Their friends are less successful, their stories only foils, and the roles a waste of Rachel Clare Chan and Dean John-Wilson.

There’s a bigger problem though. The lyrics, from Tracy Miller and Carly Robyn Green, are not good: sometimes nonsensical, full of clichés and repetitious. Some of the issue comes from the relentless aim to inspire – it’s all lifting, climbing, flying, while pages are turned and characters “break out”. But nearly every line is predictable, and some are toe-curling: freedom is “really real” and “butterflies can fly”. The words make performances that should be a pleasure feel plodding.

The production is strong. Director Nick Winston keeps the action clear and quick, and makes a lot of effort to focus on emotion. There’s some excellent video design from Dan Light while the lighting, from Rory Beaton, adds a great deal. Musical contests, which structure the plot, make it easy to include the audience – the applause we add is deserved – but such moments are nonetheless highlights. If the classical pieces might be made more of within Frank Wildhorn’s score, the music offered is good; many of the songs are catchy, and a conscientious effort is made to bring in variety.

The music is professional more than inspiring though. There’s an irony here, as the story itself reflects a problem for the show. What Kōsei learns from Koari is that music is about connection rather than perfection. What drives her is the chance to “live in people’s hearts” while a stress on technique has led to disaster – Kōsei literally can’t hear the music anymore. Regardless of how sentimental or neat the idea is, the precision everyone sings long and loud about is ever present. Such polish is an achievement and provides enjoyment. But it lacks a spark, a quirk…something special. Your Lie in April could learn a lot from its own message.

Until 21 September 2024

www.yourlieinapril.co.uk

Photo by Craig Sugden

“Surrender” at the Arcola Theatre

Sophie Swithinbank’s 2022 play, Bacon, was one of the finest pieces of writing I’ve enjoyed in a long time. So expectations for this new work, co-created with its solo performer, Phoebe Ladenburg, are high. The writing is complex, arguably too dense for some tastes, but its poetry is stunning. And there’s a strength to the storytelling that impresses. This script really grips.

The scenario seems simple. A traumatic event has led us to a meeting between a mother in prison and the daughter she neglected. The moments when Ladenburg talks to the child are, predictably, moving. But there’s much more from both writer and performer, enhanced by their joint direction. First up is an aggressive awareness that this story is the stuff of true crime drama…and we, the audience, should examine our sense of schadenfreude.

soften, listen

More scenes and characters are introduced: police and prison guards, friends and colleagues of the mother and, as she was an actress, there’s an audition. What the carefully interwoven scenes have in common is how they all judge this woman. Her own request that we “soften, listen” to the story is also a challenge.

Apart from a voice over for her mother-in-law, this is all a one-way conversation, an incredibly difficult task for a performer that Ladenburg makes look easy. And she is careful to leave plenty of room for us to suspect the character, to distrust a lot of what she says.

endless debts

This woman knows she is charming, and Ladenburg has a firm grip on some lighter comic moments. But while the seriousness of events is never questioned, what really went on is. Did her audition actually happen? Is this just an imaginary meeting between mother and daughter? The suggestion is that her sleep deprivation reached a dangerous degree. From here, big questions arise about the expectations around women and motherhood. The text tightens, the poetry escalates, as the mother tries to acknowledge and somehow free herself from the “endless debts” she owes her daughter.

Swithinbank’s gets the most from her accomplished script through excellent design work from Stacey Nurse and Dominic Brennan, whose lighting and sound sculpt the show. The lights rise for direct addresses to the audience, while there’s a black out when the action becomes confused. Sound echoes around the mother, disorienting or showing her distress. Startlingly, the character is sometimes in control of effects, at other moments they seem to take her by surprise. It is a theatrical thrill to see a team at the top of their game. Surrender is a big win.

Until 13 July 2024 then Summerhall in Edinburgh on 1 to 26 August 2024

www.arcolatheatre.com

Photo credit Production of Surrender

“Boys from the Blackstuff” at the Garrick Theatre

Since the word seminal is nearly always attached to Alan Bleasdale’s 1982 television drama, it is easy to declare its cultural significance. But given that theatre lacks working-class stories – and current concerns around inequality and austerity – the show still feels urgent. The effects of Liverpool’s “managed decline” by Margaret Thatcher’s government are shown through powerful stories of family and friendship that make for great drama.

It’s all meat and drink to its adaptor, playwright James Graham, who is an expert at bringing politics to the stage while focusing on personalities (think This HouseLabour of Love or Monster Raving Loony). Graham turns out ideas and emotions in equal measure. Meanwhile, director Kate Wasserberg does an excellent job of making it all theatrical, with song and sound (credit to Dyfan Jones) as well video work (James Jenkin) used throughout. There’s strong input from movement director Rachael Nanyonjo, especially during a fight scene. And a brilliant twist when it comes to one character’s children (that I won’t spoil).

The politics can’t help but be heavy handed – they reflect desperation. But the history is dealt with more lightly (although Amy Jane Cook’s costumes are spot on). Above all, it is the characters brought to the stage so vividly, still well-loved long after they have left our TV screens, that prove the biggest success. 

Lined up at the dole office as if they were criminals, we see this “famous five” as a close-knit group of mates and are instantly on their side. Their history and trials are held together by Philip Whitchurch’s powerful portrayal of the slightly older George, a good man who acts as a confidante to all and whose death brings a tear to the eye.

Another focus is the well-meaning Chrissie, too nice for his own good, who faces a moral dilemma that Nathan McMullen makes epic. Mark Womack’s performance as Dixie, forced to compromise in order to make ends meet, is a neat contrast that’s quieter, maybe, but no less moving. The fate of Loggo, played by Aron Julius, who moves away to look for work, provides further food for thought. And by no means least, Barry Sloane’s troubled Yosser is a forceful presence with his famous “gizza job” refrain summing up so many of the show’s concerns.

The humour is distinctive, and interesting. There are jokes in Boys from the Blackstuff – good ones. But care is taken by Bleasdale not to laugh at, let alone patronise, his creations and Graham respects this. While there are big emotions on display, performers never overplay their gags. We are even told to stop laughing in a powerful scene for Lauren O’Neil, who plays Chrissie’s wife Angie. She is sick of putting on a brave face as she goes hungry. Of the show’s many admirable qualities, the justifiable anger that burns away makes sure this is a work that stands proud. A good job all around.

Until 3 August 2024

boysfromtheblackstuff.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

“Babies The Musical” at The Other Palace Theatre

Plenty of work has gone into Jack Godfrey and Martha Geelan’s musical that, mostly, pays off. If there’s only so much you can do with a coming-of-age story, Babies gets a lot from its small scenario: a group of schoolchildren are given electronic babies to look after and find out a lot about themselves as a result.

Geelan’s book, her first effort for a musical, is neat and complemented by her fine direction. With a firm structure, well-sketched characters are ably marshalled. And this class is full, making Babies a real ensemble affair, with everyone getting a moment in the spotlight and making sure there is plenty of enjoy. It’s easy to see a long life for the show at drama schools and showcases. But things do take a while to settle down, to give the audience a lead and to point towards something to learn.

Although the show is tongue in cheek throughout, moments when it is most knowing are best. References to a boy band are a big hit, while school swot Jasmine makes a great villain role for Lauren Conroy. But a romance between Toby and Jacob, although sweet and played well by Bradley Riches and Nathan Johnston, feels like a distraction. And what a lot of pressure these kids are under – so much loneliness and stress. You don’t doubt the sincerity and you can argue for realism, but none of it is a surprise and it is a touch oppressive.

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Bradley Riches and Nathan Johnston

There are smart touches. But is the show missing a trick? Jokes for a slightly older audience (say, how your friends change when they have kids) could be elaborated. Rather, the focus is on the kids themselves – cleverly, no adults appear – which is fair enough, but the humour does suffer. Most of the time the performances outshine the comedy: Max Mulrenan and Jaina Brock-Patel are excellent as a young couple who handle their new baby in very different ways. And the anxious Lulu might well disappear if it weren’t for a strong performance from Lucy Carter.

Godfrey’s music is good. Importantly, more than one number is very catchy, and the music weaves together well. It’s a ‘proper’ musical and not just a collection of songs. It’s nearly all high energy – you might miss a change of pace – but it goes down well. The lyrics are less successful, through strong voices mask some of this, especially when the ensemble sings together.

We do settle, almost, on Leah, whose central drama is good and allows Zoë Athena to show her skills. The irony that Leah is trying to parent her mother is a touch obvious. But her story allows the show to develop towards the loose notion that friends are just as important as family (so time spent establishing everyone else wasn’t wasted). And there’s a reassuring takeaway at the end, as the kids accept that they aren’t ready to be adults.

If Babies is too niche to be a massive success, it works because of very talented young performers, clearly thrilled to be on stage, creating a terrific atmosphere. I sincerely hope it grows into something big.

Until 14 July 2024

www.theotherpalace.co.uk

Photos by Matt Crockett

“Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder!” at the Ambassadors Theatre

This strong new musical from Jon Brittain and Matthew Floyd Jones is quirky and has lots of laughs, with both its originality and humour boosted by excellent performances. Smart and entertaining, it offers something different while maintaining wide appeal.

We follow the adventures of schoolfriends Kathy and Stella, whose true crime podcast goes viral when they become part of a murder story themselves. As amateur sleuths, with little ability and a morbid streak, they provide a lot of grisly fun. But, although he plots well, Brittain’s book for the show isn’t really about crime. The focus is female friendship.

Support given in the battle against low self-esteem is explored in depth to great effect. The show isn’t afraid to poke fun at its heroes, and the performers show an admirable lack of vanity… But you don’t laugh at Stella and Kathy – you want to be their friend. The show’s success rests on performances with real heart from Bronté Barbé and Rebekah Hinds.

There are more than a few sweet moments, a nice surprise given that the show is ostensibly about a serial killer. But Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder! is also a strong satire. Brittain has plenty to say about the true crime genre, and is suspicious, if never vicious. So, while fangirl Erica is a great chance for Imelda Warren-Green to show how brilliantly funny she is, the character is more than just a gag. And celebrity writer Felicia, played with suitably larger than life touches by Hannah-Jane Fox, is such a big character she gets to appear in three different versions. It’s a great way to keep cast numbers down while giving her the air of Cerberus! And don’t worry, Brittain is aware of how much his own show gets from the genre. Maybe it’s worth pinpointing that it’s the internet that’s really in the crossfire – and when you’re in a theatre, enjoying something live, that always feels good. An easy target, maybe, but Stella’s solo about validation is excellent – a theme for our times.

Floyd Jones’ music is good, perhaps serviceable rather than memorable, but the main theme is catchy, with just enough variety. And the songs are impressively ambitious, requiring extremely strong voices, which Barbé and Hinds certainly have. The lyrics by from Floyd Jones and Brittain are excellent – consistently strong, funny and surprising. There are some brilliant rhymes, not least on Felicia’s surname. Even the swearing is smart. Expletives aren’t thrown in for a cheap punchline – they are used often but wisely. And we get the best use of lesbianism in a lyric since Jerry Springer the Opera… and I’ve been waiting to write that for a long time.

There are jokes about pretty much everything in Kathy and Stella Solve a Murder! With a great use of northern accents, both Barbé and Hinds are very funny. They get the most out of every line with impeccable timing. But behind comic characters, full back stories lead to a detailed portrayal of two young women who are both a little lost. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Barbé and Hinds are best friends in real life. The chemistry here is among the most convincing I’ve seen on stage and is something special to behold.

Until 14 September 2024

www.kathyandstella.com

Photo by  Ellie Kurttz

“A View from the Bridge” at the Theatre Royal Haymarket

Arthur Miller’s 1955 play is far from his best work. Yet this revival, which comes from Bath, has a strong cast, while director Lindsay Posner succeeds in making the text swift and exciting. If the play has dated badly, it still provokes thought, and excellent performances make the most of the characters.

Miller’s setting is specific and vividly evoked – a community of longshoremen who live and work near Brooklyn Bridge. When two “submarines”, illegal immigrants from Italy, arrive at the Carbone home, the already uncomfortable balance between Eddie, his wife Beatrice, and niece, Catherine, results in tragedy.

There are plenty of ‘themes’ in A View from the Bridge. Many feel topical. There’s immigration, of course, where Miller explores how sympathy for those arriving from a poverty-stricken continent comes with conditions. And a contemporary audience will note Eddie’s toxic masculinity and the domestic violence in the play. Posner handles the tension well: Beatrice and Catherine suffer psychologically, and Kate Fleetwood and Nia Towle are terrific in these roles.

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Pierro Niel-Mee and Callum Scott Howells

Catherine’s affair with newly arrived Rodolfo isn’t written as well – it seems included to reveal Eddie’s inappropriate obsession with the orphan girl he has raised. While Callum Scott Howells brings a strange glamour to the role of Rodolfo (you can imagine a young girl falling for the character he skilfully creates), Towle seems wasted in her part. Similarly, Rodolfo’s brother, capably performed by Pierro Niel-Mee, has little to do. In short, characters are only foils to Eddie.

“Blue in his mind”

Given the play’s focus, having a star like Dominic West as top billing is essential. West is truly commanding, so imposing that his hold over his family convinces. And he brings an affability to the role that makes Eddie occasionally, appealing. But there is a problem with humour, at least for some audience members, when it comes to Eddie’s homophobia. A conviction that Rodolfo isn’t “right” shouldn’t be something to laugh at. From Eddie’s perspective, it’s a genuine concern, even if he is using it as an excuse to hide his jealousy. There’s no doubting Eddie’s anger (West is excellent here), but, overall, torment is underplayed – it should be bigger than his unrequited lust. Catherine’s observation that Eddie is “blue in his mind” could be made more of.

It’s hard to have sympathy for Eddie. West is good at making him creepy, but the production might have more nuance and offer something fresh if his mental health was given more time. Still, even without it, the play is sometimes slow. A pivotal moment, when Eddie betrays the Italians, illustrates how drawn out it can be. And the role of a lawyer, a kind of narrator, played by expertly by Martin Marquez, is downright cumbersome. All the performances here are strong enough not to need so much pointed out to us. The cast is the reason to see this show.

Until 3 August 2024

www.trh.co.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Passing Strange” at the Young Vic

Another fantastic American musical has, finally, reached London. Stew’s 2006 award-winning piece, which follows the adventures of a ‘Youth’, narrated by his older self, is full of big sounds and grand ideas. Ben Stones’ wide-open set makes the Young Vic feel huge. It’s an appropriate stage for tremendous performances from the two leads – Keenan Munn-Francis and Giles Terera – that nobody should miss.

Like Hadestown and Next to Normal (now in the West End), Passing Strange is a very grown-up affair. Despite being a story about a young man, and both leads being magnetic performers, it is the older character we watch. Our narrator is harsh about his early years, coming close to suggesting such self-discovery is just a phase.

There are tough political topics tackled. The ‘passing’ of the title refers to race, but Stew also looks at prejudices associated with being a songwriter – as both he and his characters are. Observations are bravely close to the bone… and specific. The 1970s middle-class Los Angeles milieu is keenly observed (there are sure to be nuances missed). This is the life Youth wants to escape, and we travel with him to vivid depictions of Amsterdam and Berlin. 

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Rachel Adedeji

In each location, supporting performers – David Albury, Nadia Violet Johnson, Renée Lamb and Caleb Roberts – get the chance to shine in a variety of roles. It’s noticeable that the women we meet are treated badly, but the characters played by Johnson and Lamb have great numbers (and tricksy accents). All the time the action is anchored by Youth’s long-suffering mum – a role brilliantly performed by Rachel Adedeji.

“The head’s footnotes”

There’s also humour in the piece. Again, some depends on understanding what is being satirised. The laughs don’t always fit comfortably in such a serious work, but director Liesl Tommy appreciates the power of such disquieting moments. Mental health is examined as is, as part of this, frequent drug use. As one girlfriend sings, Youth is deep in his “head’s footnotes” (what a great description) and such self-absorption is intense. Like a third recent show from the states, A Strange Loop, there’s an interest in how the mind works that is insightful.

If this weren’t deep enough, the big topic is Art itself. Those questions about the mind, and the past, connect to how we tell stories. Passing Strange looks at how art is made, but also at what it can do, what a comfort it can be. Want another step? The search for “the Real” is an obsessive refrain. Again, it’s about passing – what passes for the real… and what is really real. There’s some profound thinking here, saved from pretentiousness by a big heart and humour.

Given the big ideas, Stew’s songs (the music written with Heidi Rodewald), have a lot to do. The score doesn’t just deliver, it is full of unexpected turns and hugely exciting. While predominantly rock, it serves up a potted musical history with so many styles that it is clear, despite protestations to the contrary, Stew can write anything. Numbers are heart-breaking, funny and dramatic. They are all catchy and their story telling is excellent. The lyrics are consistently intelligent – every word is worth hearing – and matched by superb verse dialogue. 

The trials and tribulations of artists can be a turn-off. I don’t doubt how difficult the job is and how much suffering is involved, but they do go on about it don’t they? But Passing Strange plays with such tropes, interrogating them and providing tough love, thereby breathing new life into old questions and sounding great along the way. 

Until 6 July 2024

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Marc Brenner