Browse reviews

FringeReview UK 2021

Before After

The Grey Area Theatre Company

Genre: Contemporary, Film, Musical Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Southwark Playhouse Little Studio (online)


Low Down

OnCom Finalist. Directed by Matthew Rankcom with Musical Director Charlie Ingles Associate Director Samantha Dye, Stage Manager Orla Reeve Daly, Production Assistant Laura Loutit, Livestream Operator Bartek Podkowa. Originaly livestreamed September 26th 2020 and returning for a second run. Till February 28th but Southwark say it may extend. Check on their website.


This is enchanting. Before After is another chronologically twisted exploration of love – think The Last Five Years, still playing virtually at Southwark, though this is zig-zag; or even Sliding Doors, but internalised. So think James Hilton’s Random Harvest. Actually keep thinking that.

Stuart Matthew Price and Timothy Knapman have produced an intimate musical ideal for filming at Southwark, originally a livestreamed reading last September. A darkened stage, music stand and luxury casting here – Rosalie Craig (As You Like It, Company, City of Angels) as meets Hadley Fraser (Young Frankenstein, City of Angels) on a hilltop. Premiered in 2014 with Fraser and Caroline Sheen, it’s even more beguiling with Fraser’s real-life partner Craig.

Ben’s startled when Ami instinctively hugs him when he mentions his car accident. Nervously comedic, he can’t remember a thing. She knows he was the love of her life. He works in a call centre now, ‘baby steps’ but before….. Ben feels he could start again, do anything. ‘Maybe I was an arsehole.’ ‘No you’re not an arsehole’ Ami ripostes decisively, which Ben should really pick up on. Where could it all go right? For one thing, Ami’s already transformed her life, swapping office for gallery. Why?

Structurally the clue’s in the title, a continual sashay starting with the ‘After’ timeline, hopscotching with ‘Before’. Before the After sings a prelude to the fugue of consequences and second chances. Musically it’s not unlike mid-period Sondheim: floaty off-kilter melodies, lyrics flows into dialogue, music spills into narrative. And yes Jason Robert Brown’s Last Five Years. The piano-led band riffs underpin it all.

Directed by Matthew Rankcom with musical direction by Charlie Ingles and livestream operation by Bartek Podkowa it’s a tight and intimate production.

Posh gallery-owner Ami tells us (but not Ben) what it was like three years ago in ‘Before’ her life pleasing her long-widowed father, office job, approved-of career-obsessed men. One can’t get away and stands her up on her birthday.

Craig throughout exudes pent-up expressive passion, melting looks, a waiting for recognition. She’s also excellent at exasperation. Fraser’s slightly dangerous. His Ben is gentle but destabilised both by accident and his orphan past. He can snap or roar confidence edged with comedic self-deprecation.

Numbers flow in a peppy seamlessness: ‘Three Years Ago’ and ‘I’ll Wait a Little Longer’. Then cocky-but-starving-artist-and-waiter Ben crashes into her. It’s instant. ‘You’re an artist, what kind?’ ‘Starving’ and they rush to a proper eatery.

‘After’: We’re three years ahead and Ben’s irritated Ami takes him to a place that other Ben and she frequented. Only he doesn’t know it’s him. Ami encourages Ben to try drawing, as his therapists had. Well she runs a gallery.  ‘Starting Again’ and ‘We Can Draw a Future’ contrast and entwine in bittersweet counterpoint. Craig’s soprano hits the note we’ve come to expect with a warm ping, perfect for music theatre. More important her legato is expressive even when quiet. Fraser’s tenor – he sports a baritonal burr too – finds a richness released when soaring.

It’s all there in ‘Before’s number ‘Stop and Rewind’ Ben’s Alpha wobble literally rubs up against Ami’s commitment-oriented refrain. It’s Ami who points out they’re no longer in their twenties, that complex territory of this must be it for Ami and bloody well should be for Ben. So it’s going to strike chords with most of us. Ben though can’t quite bring himself to answer Ami’s ‘I love you’. It’s too nakedly good in all senses. At least he didn’t sing ‘ditto’.

‘After’ rockets us to the same flat, again Ami buzzing, again far earlier than Ben meant. He’s painting her, he thinks for the first time. ‘Every Shape’ launches Ami’s lyrically soaring surprise at Ben replicating a moment of three years ago. In Craig’s hands it’s magically-edged panic.

Flip to ‘Before’ when Ben introduces the hilltop to Ami, there’s Ami’s father. She’s thirty-three, orphan Ben reminds her. Tell him. But he also draws her – for the first time.

In ‘Always’ they rapturously commit in a nailingly warm number you want to hug. Ali switches her stalking daddy phone off.

Part Two picks this up, still in ‘Before’ as the tempo ping-pongs us across three years. ‘I Love him Daddy (and that’s all I need to say)’. ‘After’ and at Ben’s flat he’s anxiety-jigging at his first ‘After’ show. Ben angsts his former self remembered might annihilate them. He doesn’t know of course. ‘The Closer We Get (the further we go)’ shot through with minor-keyed angst is one of the most memorable numbers with its spiky harmonies. It’s another duet that showcases how this husband-and-wife team blend seamlessly. Even the bass owns a ruminant darkness. And then there’s an envelope Ben’s therapist says he can open, revealing his past life. He daren’t. Only Ben’s art holds the key.

Cut to ‘Before’, Ben’s late for the picnic, busy munificent Dad’s gone. But a deposit is what Ben’s been securing. There’s cutely smart dialogue too. Dad was angry about ‘house prices, traffic wardens and for some reason… the Welsh.’ ‘What Comes After (is better than before)’ is Ben’s second upwards song. The song continues; the new flat’s Chagall stain, and mice. Still Ben can paint…

For a blink we’re in ‘After’: ‘The Closer We Get (the further we go)’ always a welcome reprise we’re in angst-exhibition mode then sashay back again. Price and Knapman know what they’re doing with climaxes. One of their strongest minor-keyed numbers knocks straight into another. In ‘Something’s Not Right’ Ami takes a bad-news call. Ben picks up the same song angsting about his paintings underscoring his dependence on Ami’s judgement. For instance a painting of a red-wine spilt on a tunic – it should be at the beginning. Why? Ben’s past self could have told him. At this point lightning strikes Ben. Crisis.

We lurch back to the first crisis; Ami’s late now seeing one Jonathan. For a singular reason. We leave ‘Before’ for good as ‘After’ picks up what happened. They pick it through, but can Ben’s self-recriminations overwhelm them again?

A pristine, heartwarming Valentine of a musical, starring a pair of real-life lovers it deserves a real-life run. Production is nearly flawless – the couple sight-read the score though are clearly wholly inside the music. Three other highlights include ‘As Long As You’re There’, ‘This Time’ and the title song ‘Before After’. The book’s idiomatic with modern living, believable and loveable. You want this couple to win through.

The Southwark – shortly to achieve its funding for a new home – is a go-to for terrific new drama and musicals, and will be again. As it is Southwark’s putting out an astounding number of online productions like these – their site’s the most active in London – at the same velocity as before lockdown. Grab this quick and book the next.