“I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

This musical, fortunately abbreviated to Ceiling/Sky, follows seven twentysomethings living in LA and how they change in the aftermath of an earthquake. The spectrum of characters’ interests and ethnic backgrounds allows John Adams plenty of scope for musical experimentation. Known as a modern classical composer and feted in the UK for his work at the ENO, Adams is a ferociously intelligent musician. This work flaunts his knowledge of great American musicals as well as creating a contemporary urban soundscape. It is dauntingly ambitious in its reach.

Directors Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia see the strengths of this fascinating piece and seek to address some of its more intimidating tendencies by emphasising its theatricality and casting a group of strong, young actors. The cast bravely tackle a demanding score and excel in revealing the humanity of their characters.

Natasha J Barnes plays an offensive TV reporter whose frosty demeanour convincingly breaks down in the face of crisis. She is pursued by a young lawyer (Colin Ryan), who gives a determined, passionate performance, but she prefers a policeman she is writing about. Stewart Charlesworth is wonderful in this role – full of angst and diffidence. In an extremely awkward arrest scene he apprehends Leon Lopez, a petty criminal in love with an illegal immigrant (Anna Mateo). Both bring out the lyricism in some great songs. The final couple are a lecherous preacher played with amusing grace by Jason Denton and his long-suffering girlfriend performed by Cynthia Erivo, whose stunning voice gives her character an aggressive complexity.

But for all Adams’ skill and the cast’s flair, the star of this show is lyricist June Jordan. I confess my ignorance of this poet and essayist but will be scouring The London Library as soon as I have posted this review. The plot is never explained in Ceiling/Sky – you just go straight into the songs. Remarkably, the writing is so clear that this is never a problem. The text is raw, blithe and affirming. It has an earthy quality that is instantly appealing and it is to the production’s credit that every line is clearly heard. While the composition may be of greatest interest to aficionados of musical theatre, the words speak loudly to all of us. I strongly suggest that you go and hear them.

Until 17 July 2010

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by Robert Day

Written 8 July 2010 for The London Magazine

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