Tag Archives: Adam Lenson

“Public Domain” from the Southwark Playhouse

With so much of our lives spent online, a musical about the internet seems apposite to our lockdown times. The twist for this show, from Francesca Forristal and Jordan Paul Clarke, is that it is a verbatim piece. All the words spoken or sung are taken from the internet. The result is a snapshot of a recognisably confusing world, refocused and clarified with considerable talent.

Forristal and Clarke are a gifted duo. Their music is pop-inspired, electronic and generally perky. While sampled speech is not to my personal taste, it is integrated well. Blissfully, the show is streamed live. That more than makes up for some technical glitches on the first night. Forristal and Clarke’s voices are strong, their acting, taking on different characters, commendable. Adam Lenson’s direction aids clarity.

The subject matter is wildly ambitious. And there are missteps. Like plenty of online content an edit would help. Touching on Facebook’s treatment of outsourced employees makes for a great number but is an issue that needs more time. Similarly, the topic of censorship feels tacked on – it deserves a show all of its own.

Francesca Forristal in Public Domain Photo The Other Richard
Francesca Forristal

Overall though, the book for Public Domain is impressive. The words, chosen for interest and importance rather than inherent musicality, flow remarkably well. Focus comes, first, from two fictional YouTubers (SwaggyWan and Millies Fitness). Made from several sources, they are credible creations that show us the positive and negative approaches to life online. Both prove funny and moving and leave you wanting to subscribe.

There’s another ‘pairing’ in the show: those YouTubers alongside Facebook mogul Mark Zuckberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. Television interviews or congressional hearings (which might remind you of the Donmar’s show, Committee) provide insight into a very different world from the struggling influences. It’s a strong, thought-provoking, contrast that works well.

Jordan Paul Clarke in Public Domain Photo The Other Richard
Jordan Paul Clarke

When it comes to how these different sets of people are presented, Forristal and Clarke gain further respect. The music provides a sincerity and emotive power to plenty of glib comments (it’s the internet, remember). Due attention is paid to the positives of the social networking; it helps people feel “a little less alone” and an unexpected finale emphasises this important point. Yet an underlying cynicism shows an intelligent approach. No matter what happens, our YouTubers want you to follow them!

The web is worldwide but at their best, Forristal and Clarke catch most by casting a narrow net. It’s easy to imagine Public Domain as a project as much as a finished piece. The subjects covered are so topical, further versions could surely be developed. And I know I’d watch.

Until 16 January 2021

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photos by The Other Richard

“The Fabulist Fox Sister” from the Southwark Playhouse

The life of Kate Fox, the 19th-century “mother of all mediums”, makes a rich subject matter for this very funny monologue with music. Writer and performer Michael Conley imagines Fox’s final audience as she reveals her seances were really just theatre all along.

Always brash, Conley’s version of Fox as a straight-talking New Yorker is liberated by being at the end of her long career. It’s a simple device used effectively to give us a lot of history as well as an air of recklessness that adds a touch of the unexpected. When Kate proclaims,

“Fuck it, I’m retiring”

It means you’re never quite sure what will be revealed next.

Fox’s life, “famous before famous meant disposable”, was remarkable. And, along with playful period detail, the twisted justification for exploiting “rich guys with dead kids” provides some weight to the show that director Adam Lenson does well to highlight. Still, it’s really Conley’s depiction of Fox that adds the spirit to this spiritualist.

Conley’s script is full of good jokes. Fox’s mother being so stupid she couldn’t understand buttons really tickled me. Along with sibling rivalry (hence the title) and Kate’s love of one particular spirit – Jim Beam – word play, repetition and dead pan asides are all expertly delivered. Even Kate’s deliberately bad jokes get laughs: that’s when you know Conley has great comic skills.

The Fabulist Fox Sister is aided by jolly, very catchy tunes from Luke Bateman, who has a clever ear for using period touches. The songs are consistently strong, only once disappointing when a serious tone is attempted. In every other case the music adds considerably to amusement.

“believe in something”

Conley makes Fox funny but more than a figure of fun. An enormous ego, totally devoid of sensitivity toward others, which should make her revolting means her presence fills the stage. That Kate and her sisters sometimes believed their own lies adds a melancholy touch to the show. But there’s a whimsy to both script and music that works superbly. Conley makes you believe that Fox could have pulled off her incredible career. If nothing else, you end up believing in her. And having a lot of fun along the way.

Until 6 December 2020

www.ffsmusical.com

Photos by Jane Hobson

“Wasted” at the Southwark Playhouse

It’s not the fault of this strong show, a rock musical about the Brontë family, that it’s playing at the same time as another new piece called Six, which recasts the wives of Henry VIII as a pop group. Both musicals infuse history with a modern sensibility – and a lot of attitude – so maybe the more the merrier. To be clear, both shows are strong and exhibit exciting new promise from British talent, and comparisons shouldn’t be overstated as the pieces have different ambitions. But while Six is sharp and snappy, feeling like an exciting breakthrough, Wasted overreaches and comes a bit of a cropper.

The performances are all excellent. Natasha J Barnes takes the lead as Charlotte, dealing well with the clumsy flashback device of an interview and really belting out the songs. Molly Lynch is a prim and proper Anne, who also sounds great. Siobhan Athwal’s Emily, an eye-catching and committed mix of Kate Bush and Lady Gaga, proves hugely appealing. And the show has a lot of Branwell, performed with a deal of charisma by Matthew Jacobs Morgan. There’s some dissonance in the direction from Adam Lenson; it’s not quite clear how funny Wasted is supposed to be. Athwal gets a lot of laughs and Branwell is primed for them, yet the piece consistently veers towards gravity, even grimness.

There’s a great score from Christopher Ash. Heavy on rock, with plenty of passion delivered courtesy of Barnes and Lynch, with a bit of punk thrown in, Ash writes the best kind of pastiche. A comedy number for Emily recalls Kate Bush very cleverly while Jacobs Morgan’s smoother vocals are utilised well. Yet each song is just that little bit too long, too emphatic and too insistent. And Ash is not well served by the lyrics from Carl Miller, which seldom rise above the pedestrian. Miller gets a lot of information in, but there’s more prose than poetry here and attempts at humour are poor.

Tackling all four lives proves too much. It’s not that the show is too long but that Miller’s book becomes repetitive. The doom and gloom of the Brontës’ lives takes too much of the first act. And then they die. Fitting in a couple of songs about their work along the way is probably essential (although these are the weakest numbers). Presenting Branwell’s death as so literally a the result of his sisters’ success, then Emily’s collapse because of cruel critics, proves frustrating. Trying to tie all this together is the title – that the family saw their lives as wasted in one way or another – which isn’t quite enough. The show itself couldn’t be described as a waste in any way. But several ideas need reconsidering to give its subjects, and the talents of its cast and crew, a proper outing.

Until 6 October 2019

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“The Rink” at the Southwark Playhouse

While any show from John Kander and Fred Ebb should earn a crowd, the draw for Adam Lenson’s revival of their 1984 musical is the casting of Caroline O’Connor. ‘Direct from Broadway’, as they say, Anglo-Aussie O’Connor is the real deal: a powerful voice, great acting skills and incredible stage presence. Trust me, don’t miss her.

Both music and lyrics for the show hold their own against more famous works such as Chicago or Cabaret. The plot is simpler – a mother and daughter, Anna and Angel, fighting over the family business of a boardwalk roller-skating hall – wonderfully condensed in Terrence McNally’s book. As the action goes back and forth in time, the estranged women catch up on each other’s lives and revisit their shared history, seeing events from each other’s perspective. The skill in song-writing is astounding: take Angel’s All The Children In A Row, which narrates the search for her father, a death, a birth and hippiedom in one number. Big themes and psychological insight are present and satisfying throughout, covering love, loss and even economics.

Lenson shows admirable confidence in the show’s strengths, never overstating its melancholy overtones and allowing the drama to unfold with a careful eye on nostalgia. The production deserves a bigger home, but the staging and Fabian Aloise’s choreography impress… especially when the roller-skates arrive!

O’Connor is more than capable of carrying the show – she could probably hoist a great deal more. But it should be stressed that she doesn’t have to as a capable team backs her up at every moment. There’s strong work from Stewart Clarke as her husband and Ben Redfern as the childhood sweetheart who waits around to marry her. Co-star Gemma Sutton makes the most of some wonderful numbers and never shies away from her role’s less loveable characteristics. She convinces as a young child, rebellious teenage and angry adult, retaining an equal vulnerability throughout. The Rink is a show full of thrills, emotional and intellectual, and the chance to see a double act this good means you should really get your skates on to see it.

Until 23 June 2018

www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“Songs For A New World” at the St James Theatre

Jason Robert Brown is a composer known for his clever musicals and skilled songwriting, both evident in Adam Lenson’s 20th anniversary revival of his first work, Songs For A New World. A song cycle, rather than ‘proper’ musical, it has numbers set in distant ages and places, mixed with those about relationships that could be from any time and anywhere. The songs are connected by a moment when a life changes and a character develops. Startling and original, it’s the music’s instant appeal and variety, rather than the concept, that is the real highlight.

Lenson has some nice touches to suggest the fluidity the show aims for, but he never distracts attention from the performers – wise, as the four stars on stage are truly stellar. They sound better singing solo than as a group, but their voices are fantastic. First the boys – Damian Humbley and Dean John-Wilson – with songs of depression and ambition, often linked by the mistakes of fathers, perfectly delivered. Then Cynthia Erivo, who sounds appropriately heavenly as a woman who sings about her pregnancy and has a wonderful stage presence. But since I’m such a fan, Jenna Russell was my favourite, with the show’s funniest numbers: a suicidal rich bitch and the desperate wife of Santa Claus.

Yet even with performances like these, it’s frustrating to hunt for themes and connections when you really just want to enjoy the music. Songs For A New World feels like a collection of musicals waiting to break out rather than its bolder aim of something abstract. You want each song to develop – they sound so great. And each character introduced is one you want to know better. A surfeit of talent perhaps, the piece is more a soundtrack to love than a show to see.

Until 8 August 2015

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell

“Ordinary Days” at the Trafalgar Studios

Having had its London premiere at the Finborough Theatre back in 2008 we owe director Adam Lenson enormous thanks for staging another production of Ordinary Days. Adam Gwon’s musical is as far from the quotidian as it is possible to be. It’s a must-see.

Gwon’s story of four young people on one day in New York is a song cycle of love to the city. New York’s stresses and excitement, its random possibilities, are common enough urban tropes but Gwon presents them with unusual, appealing modesty as well as intelligence and great tunes.

Lenson has a similarly light touch, focusing on the intimacy of the piece and getting the best from his cast of familiar musical theatre performers. It would be a privilege to see these guys on any stage, but in a venue as intimate as the Trafalgar Studios it’s an unmissable opportunity.

Daniel Boys is perfectly cast as the lovelorn James. The chemistry he has with co-star Julie Atherton, who plays the recondite Claire, is palpable and both are in fine voice.
Deb and Warren
Lee William-Davis shows off his fine acting skills playing Warren, a sensitive soul lost in the city. Yet the revelation of the night is Alexia Khadime, who gives a tremendous performance as Deb, a frenzied graduate student who loses her notes and finds something more important. Khadime’s voice is as stunning as her comic ability.

Comparisons with writer/composer Jason Robert Brown are somewhat inevitable for Gwon. There are similarities and that is no bad thing. Ordinary Days is fresh, contemporary and brave. But Gwon’s musical has a more immediate lyricism and his writing a sentimental touch Robert Brown might shy away from.

Underlying Ordinary Days are questions that resonate with a modern urban audience, and ruminations on art and life that are delivered with emotional truth. Beauty is never far away in the city, or in Gwon’s wonderful score. With Lenson on board, Ordinary Days is 80 minutes of near perfection, so good you’ll want to see it again as soon as it’s finished.

Until 5 March 2011

www.ambassadortickets.com

“Saturn Returns” at the Finborough Theatre

Saturn is the god of the harvest, associated with celebration and also time. In Noah Haidle’s Saturn Returns we meet Gustin Novak at three stages of his life, each focusing on the moment of his greatest happiness – a time he sees as a golden age that he paradoxically lives to regret.

Novak is played by three actors. Richard Evans performs the character in his old age. Irascible and with a wry sense of humour, he is so desperately lonely that he can’t even take advantage of a free airline ticket to anywhere in the world.

He is joined on stage by his middle-aged self, played by Nicholas Gecks, who brings a frightening intensity to a man bereaved long ago, but still in deep mourning. Christopher Harper plays Novak when young, passionately in love and with his future before him.

All three interact with each other under strong direction from Adam Lenson. They argue amongst themselves and waltz around the stage as they re-enact the past, returning to “the beginning of unforgetting” when tragedy entered Novak’s life. This dance to the music of time is often funny and frequently moving.

This trio achieves a remarkable sense of common identity, but it is Lisa Caruccio Came who just manages to steal the show. She plays Novak’s nurse, his daughter and his wife in different scenes and not only establishes the connections between the characters, but also manages to distinguish them with great historical intelligence.

And this drama has two other stars. Noah Haidle writes with a wonderfully light and poetic touch. This play is bleak but with an underlying tenderness so evocative it borders on the sentimental and is sure to resonate emotionally. A much-lauded writer from the States, it is to the The Finborough’s credit that Haidle receives his UK debut here. Praise must go to artistic director Neil McPherson for once again sharing with us his far-sighted talent spotting.

Until 27 November 2010

www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Dan Chippendale

Written 8 November 2010 for The London Magazine