FringeReview UK 2019
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees, who’s also music director. Lees on keyboards directs Florian Belbeoch, Will Robertson (cellos) and Sam Pegg (bass) and Matt Billups (drums). The set design’s by Justin Williams with Alex Musgrave on lighting design.
Who says romance is dead in the Treasury? Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees have snatched opportunity from Winston Churchill’s indestructible fiver and spun that metallic trace into a vein of gold.
That plastic animal-fatted object of derision can survive being flushed into sewers by a snorting actor frightened of a raid, being twisted into origami and nearly torn apart by warring tots. Everything in fact but that over 15 years it’d be out of current tender. Well not just yet.
In the palm-sized programme the creators list facts about 85% of people returning a fiver someone drops, 33% never giving to the homeless, 71% of us receiving a fiver in a birthday card, and only 17% of us know Winston’s on the back: though that proportion may rise a bit after this run.
So Southwark Playhouse have another musical hit on their hands. It’s seemingly just a year’s work to them mounting about eight of these a year between all the plays. When they expand soon they could well prove the go-to theatre for sheer volume and quality of output.
Ellison’s part-busker-narrator and part-chorus (on guitar). Off-stage, Lees on keyboards directs Florian Belbeoch, Will Robertson (cellos), Sam Pegg (bass) and Matt Billups (drums). Book, Music, and Lyrics by Ellison and Lees
who’s also music director. So a dark-hued string ensemble complements the percussive keyboard/drums: it’s a miraculously resonant score in an intimate space over which the ensemble soars.
The spare set design’s by Justin Williams involving a small area of wall with an shutter that morphs into a shelf of food of other goodies, a suggestion of a wartime memorial, and little else needed bar a Surprise banner and various props. Alex Musgrave’s lighting design is subtle and unfussy, suggesting daylight, cafes and a schoolroom.
In Southwark Playhouse’s swelter we’re asked to believe in, first off, winter. Not for long though. We start and end with Ellison’s busker who interjects three intermissions: ‘A Fiver’s Destiny’ that fast–forwards action through high-speed dances from the cast and a gallimaufry of vignettes.
Dan Buckley’s first role of a homeless man somehow gains a flat white from Aoife Clesham’s first role of an oppressed office worker who pays her therapist £100 a time but gets more from this good listener; and a fiver from Ellison who’s just that bit better off. Then the whirligig begins.
Ellison’s clean-cut tenor is joined by Clesham’s high lyric soprano and Hiba Elchikhe’s slightly more coloratura one. Elchikh can graunch those Ethel Merman notes when required but Clesham’s final number does lyric Broadway a trick and treat (her last character’s American, a wonderful ‘Press Hash to Rerecord’ on seeing lovers and for a bit regretting her breakup). Luke Bayer has the clearest delivery – you can hear every word, which isn’t quite the case elsewhere – consonant-heavy lyrics delivered this fast would stretch anyone. Ellison’s close to Bayer in sheer clarity and manages by a photo-finish his own frantically-paced Destiny lyrics. This cast manage some fiendish rhythms and storytelling with the élan of the West End. There’s not a weak link and vocally each shows a sudden capacity to fill a concert hall; here they fine down for the Southwark’s Little.
Numbers are punchy, memorable and in a few case inspired. There’s always contrasts in this focus on the JAMs, people who just manage, and some like Buckley’s first character who don’t; and perhaps some who won’t. Some hard-hitting narratives in this heart-warming fable, often in the five ‘Letter’ songs re-emerge and re-invest as it were the way money works through those who struggle (a waitress steals it at one point). There’s quite a weighting towards out-of-work actors, those who from accident have lost it in ‘For Your Light to Shine’ Elchikhe’s observant song as she serves up, herself waiting for a part. It’s where a touch of Merman creeps in. Musically Elchikhe’s contribution plummets depths, with Clesham scouring angsty heights.
A schoolteacher – Clesham – is continually harassed and stalked, in both parts but in Part 2 leading to a climax of differing unmet needs. When Bayer sends a fiver to a dead brother every birthday, a woman who loves him – Elchikhe – tries to bring him down, or up from his grief in the bittersweet ‘Whisper It to Me’, whisperingly sung in a bubble of hushed intimacy.
We’re always moving from solo spots to the ensemble brilliance of the dropped fiver routine in ‘Not my Problem’ is treasurable. The cast multi-role and each avoid telling a rather repellent character of Buckley’s that he’s dropped his fiver. When finally someone acts we find he’s going to donate it to a surprise pre-birth party. And someone else bags it as change as they’ve only a £20 note (or rather the wife of said donor demands it!). Clesham and Buckley bicker over as they uproariously circle round and round as newly-arrived guests. Clesham’s morphing accents from over the world – and bagging the newly-single Buckley who’s doing the same – is one of the most exhilarating moments.
That pre-natal couple Elchikhe and Bayer top it all in ‘As Long as I Have You’. It’s meltingly done and a show-stopping moment of tenderness worth the proverbial price (about four fivers). And there’s heartbreak. Ellison though suggests the fiver’s journey is already over. But remember what your fiver’s made of.
Part 2 picks us up fifteen years from that sewer and previously being Winstoned, cutting your snort-nose on an ever-crisp fiver. A sadder Bayer unwittingly handles the same fiver he did 15 years back, gives it to his son Buckley in a terrific duet ‘You’ll be a Man, My Son’ something tested straight off. Buckley’s already finding it difficult not to get bullied (‘Gotta Keep My Head Down’). Though Clesham’s and Bayer’s turns as vicious school bullies impacts most of all on Elchikhe. Buckley’s attempts to help (a fiver) aren’t going to cut anything with her, nor Clesham’s other role here as that harassed teacher again getting sent a harrowing letter of a very different kind.
Despite the touching on real darkness and bleak torylines hinted at, this is feelgood. So the irresistible goofiness of Buckley’s ‘Blame It On the Drink’ as he attempts (via a ruse with children Clesham and Bayer in a shopping-trolley) to spring a surprise on his beloved, Elchikhe is only outdone in his even goofier ‘I’ll Write a Song for You’. That’s where Clesham notices them and soaringly goes to Press Hash.
Ellison elicits some neat audience participation and a packed house remains rapt on a stiflingly hot day. A beautifully tailored telling of our society, it’s a speed-read of our connectedness, a reminder that a fiver can change your life. It should return a long as we have fivers, and long after. Irresistible.