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FringeReview UK 2024

Low Down

A crush you want to impress? A Valentine or first date? Or romantic surprise? Take them here and they’ll say yes afterwards.

In Before After Stuart Matthew Price and  Timothy Knapman have produced an intimate musical that proved ideal in its second run livestreamed at Southwark in 2021. Now it’s back there in the Little Studio, again brought by The Grey Area Theatre and again directed by Georgie Rankcom.

A pristine, heartwarming Valentine of a musical, it fully deserves its revival


Directed by Georgie Rankcom with Musical Director Ben McQuigg (Guitar Charlie English, Cello Fiona Gillett) with Movement Director Tinovimbanashe Sibanda,  Set and Costume Designer Yimei Zhao, Artwork Yimei Zhao, Lighting Designer Alex Musgrave

Casting Director: Peter Noden, Production Stage Manager Waverley Moran, Stage Manager Orla Daly, Poster Jed Berry, Photography: Danny Kaan

Till March 2nd


Boy meets girl on top of a hill. “Unbelievable” they both say. But they mean something totally different. A crush you want to impress? A Valentine or first date? Or romantic surprise? Take them here and they’ll say yes afterwards.

In Before After Stuart Matthew Price and  Timothy Knapman have produced an intimate musical that proved ideal in its second run livestreamed at Southwark in 2021. Now it’s back there in the Little Studio, again brought by The Grey Area Theatre and again directed by Georgie Rankcom.

It’s enchanting. Before After is another chronologically twisted exploration of love – think The Last Five Years, though this 90 minutes is zig-zag; or even Sliding Doors, but internalised. So think James Hilton’s Random Harvest. Actually keep thinking that.

A darkened stage, music stand and luxury casting here – Grace Mouat (Six)  meets Jacob Fowler (Heathers) on a hilltop. Premiered in 2014 with Hadley Fraser and Caroline Sheen, it returned magically with Fraser and his real-life partner Rosalie Craig at Southwark in February 2021, for that lockdown livestreaming.

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 were 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 flow into dialogue, music spills into narrative. And yes Jason Robert Brown’s Last Five Years. The piano-led band riffs underpin it all.

Musical direction’s by Ben McQuigg with movement director Tinovimbanashe Sibanda,  set and costume Yimei Zhao and Alex Musgrave’s delicate lighting it’s a tight and intimate production.

The Little’s really intimate, and Zhao’s clever use of massive reversed canvases shroud both the musicians (Guitar Charlie English, Cello Fiona Gillett) and function as props: for other, smaller (and real) paintings executed in post-impressionist style by Zhao.

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.

Mouat throughout exudes pent-up expressive passion, melting looks, a waiting for recognition. She’s also excellent at exasperation. Fowler’s moodily trigger rather than slightly dangerous (as with Fraser). 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.

Mouat’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. Fowler’s tenor – he sports a slight 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. There’s been some adjustment too, in case you’ve seen this.

Originally Ami pointed 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. That nudge of desperation’s gone: these performers are younger so in its place there’s a fresh goofiness. Ben starts at 25 and Ami at 26. 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 Mouat’s hands it’s magically-edged panic.

Flip to ‘Before’  when Ben introduces the hilltop to Ami, there’s Ami’s father. She’s twenty-six, orphan Ben reminds her (with Craig it was 33; zoom and other slight modernisations are deftly added). 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. Ami 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. The fit line’s chromatic dip is a real hook. It’s another duet that showcases how this team blends 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 it fully deserves its revival. Mouat and Fowler are so bewitching and heady you want to cheer. 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 is a go-to for terrific new drama and musicals. Kiss this one quick and book the next.