FringeReview UK 2023
The Book and Lyrics are peerless for this scale, or indeed anywhere: and we can only look forward to much more from Orton and Robyns. This is a hart-rending, heart-warming piece. Laughter certainly, tears, yes those too. The must-see musical of the summer.
Directed by Julie Atherton, Set and Costume Designer Bob Sterrett, Musical Director Honor Halford-Macleod, Lighting Designer Adam King, Sound Designer Raffaela Pancucci, Orchestrations, Arrangements & Musical Supervision Ben Goddard-Young, Movement Director Alexzandra Sarmiento, Magic Consultant Andy Room, Dramaturg Kate Golledge.
The Band: Musical Director & Keyboard Honor Halford-Macleod, James William-Pattison, Guitar, Alice Luddington Cello, Tom Bennett Percussion.
Production Manager Titch Gosling, Stage Manager Zoe Leonard, ASM Odette Robertson, Sound Operator Amber Carey,
Till July 29th
It’s becoming a truism universally acknowledged that if you want to see a new musical, head for the Southwark. This one is a gem. Christopher Orton’s and Jon Robyns’ Then, Now & Next debuts at the Southwark’s Large Studio, directed by Julie Atherton and starring Alice Fearn, till July 29th.
Former Spamalot actors Orton and Robyns make something of a Then, Now & Next in their own preface: a ten-year development of this heart-warming, intimate music-theatre piece: through the odyssey of their careers and Orton’s lockdown discovery of a half-finished work.
Three years actively developing this proves them masters of book and lyrics, and attractive, sometimes offbeat melodists. It helps the cast are more than first-rate, and Alice Fearn – fresh from Come From Away and virtually never offstage – outstanding.
This two-hour with interval five-hander is touching, funny, enchantingly told, original: that is, achronological and much more. The first establishing song proves full of key quotes from later encounters, as the cast introduce a story segueing back and forth through memory, so first meetings occur only after the interval, one after another. Revelation’s in the ordering.
Atherton and lighting designer Adam King pin-point the shifts superbly: we always know exactly where we’re moving. Lighting roves over Bob Sterrett’s simple white set like ghosts or – if you can remember – the Mysterons from Captain Scarlet. White props (bar a tellingly beige sofa) are shunted on and off by the cast, and the upstage wall of central door, large fridge to its left, above that a guitar, shelves with glasses and cups, are all (bar glasses) white. Alex Shaw’s life is on pause. She’s “fine” but in truth not even beige, but dead white. She’s never got over a trauma and now she’s 40.
Alex (Fearn) flickrs her life with two men. Exciting, now dead San Francisco-born Stephen Hayes (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), and solid, witty film-journalist and amateur magician Peter Conners (Peter Hannah), full of off-kilter quotes. Of the two, Peter’s the more rounded character, Stephen flitting in and out of the ideal, with only work creating a transatlantic crisis of commitment, is less developed.
The cast’s completed by sometimes scene-stealing Tori Allen-Martin multi-roling as Woman, and Man by Justin Brett: less used, but when he is, tellingly.
Alex’s life has been defined by her passionate love and loss of Stephen, and her own by, if anything, as a reader of books. When she meets Peter, with whom she has a three-year-old child and eight years, she still can’t commit, move on.
She works in IT, loses one job because she’s grieving too much. A horrible café scene with cowardly Brett, ruthless-whatever-type squeaky Allen-Martin and cue Peter as stand-in waiter making an impression with his magic) and gains a worse: laconic Allen-Martin showing her round “Why do I stay in this job?” It’s up to Fearn to give an inner life to Alex, and a few songs. And does she deliver.
Valdes sings with an argent tenor but also a suave yet preppy appeal. He’s given a showstopper ‘Thirty’ – which gets knowing nods from everyone, a real can-belto but lyrically-edged. It has to be admitted that apart from exciting toilet-sex (shame-faced, confronted by policeman Brett who riffs off memories of his own, its’ that kind of show) there’s not a true core to him.
Valdes is wonderfully persuasive and signs beautifully. But beyond ambitions as a designer, Stephen functions, maybe is meant to function, as an impossibly idealised version of a talented man by no means more substantial than boring Peter.
Hannah’s palpably different, lower chest register and a superb scene-painter. He has presence too, as he had as Zola in The Oyster Problem at Jermyn Street. Perhaps his finest moment comes in ‘Jump’ an off-key, hesitation waltz of a song, where he finally pleads for the commitment that – despite their child – Alex refuses, or perhaps pauses. There’s also one of the most memorable duos as both mean sing together, a decade and mreo apart, of Alex: ‘She’s Mine’ is one of the finest numbers. Like ‘Jump’ and two others it’s memorable too.
Peter’s ‘Magic’ too is a fine number and it’s Hannah’s virtuoso set piece verbally as well, as he sets about defusing the sheer nastiness of Alex being dumped by her firm. And you can’t help feeling the core idea of this show has another ghost: Truly Madly Deeply. A magician replaces a dead lover, only in this scene – well you’ll see the pigeons are different.
None of the songs, it must be admitted, are absolute how-stopping pieces, but seeing them twice they do stick, and I heard at least one audience member humming one on exit.
Outstanding as actor though Allen-Martin’s wickedly funny. As selfish sister Jane, as a number of functionaries in IT and elsewhere, as limp controlling Therapist, but above all as Essex-girl Tara, party-girl who jigs and charters everyone to death, full of everyone else boring her.
In magenta sparkling dress Allen-Martin’s Tara turn is the most energised thing in the show, loud, raucous, exhilarating and somewhere, terribly melancholic. Allen-Martin will have none of the melancholy though – a brief two minutes in her company persuades you she’s as tough as Beverley in Abigail’s Party.
It’s very funny too, as both Peter, meeting Alex again, quietly dumps tara and vanishes, as Alex similarly divests herself of OCD Brett: whom Tara instantly swoops on as the pair escape, having exchanged numbers. Allen-Martin scores s an ice-cream seller too.
Brett though enjoys the most telling scene of all, near the end, as the man who shows Alex the way to release. It’s raptly delivered. Brett’s distinctive in all he does, and one only mourns his slight underuse. This though is the most moving scene of all, the most memorable, and the one whose complete conversation I’ll carry with me.
And it’s the great originator of “the worst word in the English language” – “fine”, as Brett says, that elicits ‘Fine’ as Fearn’s desolate, deadpan solo. It’s one of several, including the title song ‘Then, Now and Next’ which she shares with ensemble, showing the lustrous variety of Fearn’s soprano.
Virtually never offstage, always singing, but always acting too – and proving how consummate she is here – Fearn gives the core and spine of this work a commitment and empathy that’s jaw-dropping. Her voice is everywhere, her desolation alternating with happier days, her irritation (the two men breaking the same cup like something out of Mrs Ogdon-Morgan and the two dead husbands in Under Milk Wood)
This work would be worth seeing for Fearn alone, but of course this ensemble, and the players, are West-End standard. The music’s enormously helped by Ben Goddard-Young, who creates a beguiling cello line for Alice Luddington, often pointing up and improving the melodic element – a key ingredient in the four-strong band.
Led by musical director at the Keyboard Honor Halford-Macleod, with James William-Pattison, Guitar, Alice Luddington Cello, Tom Bennett Percussion, they’re all deeply impressive, above the stage, where for the most part the don’t override the singing, though occasionally lyrics are smudged by the otherwise excellent sound envelope of Raffaela Pancucci.
Then, Now & Next, might undergo a little development – both of character and pointing up a few melodies. These are as good as most others I’ve seen recently: more quirky, too. As yet though, no great melodies, but catchy ones. But the Book and Lyrics are peerless for this scale, or indeed anywhere: and we can only look forward to much more from Orton and Robyns. This is a heart-rending, heart-warming piece. Laughter certainly, tears, yes those too. The must-see musical of the summer.