Music Theatre presents Confessions and Turning 30
by Harry Style
Directed by Sophie Rush and Isabelle Pead
Produced by Lydia Harrison
Assistant Produced by Charlie Norburn
Stage One, 20th-22nd October 2016.
A good friend once told me that to write plays you have to have the incredible talent to turn caffeine into scripts, so god only knows what you need to turn them into musical scores. Making new work is an incredibly tumultuous and arduous process that starts with a vision that is usually very hard to actually replicate with the very scarce resources and low budget on offer at a university level. As such, I think talking about performances like these requires a level of empathy toward the creative team who have risked so much on an uncertain outcome. What is even more astounding is that creating a new musical is an incredibly brave move. The genre is so heavily franchised and diluted now that it’s almost impossible for your work to have any traction without it having huge amounts of money pumped into it, and so a low budget new writing musical sounds to me like one of the scariest things you could possibly do to yourself.
If that is the case, then one man is possibly slightly barmy. His name is Harry Style, and he co-wrote both Turning 30 and Confessions with Mountview Academy of Dramatic Arts alumnus Arnoud Breitbarth and Amy Le Rossignol.
Turning 30 follows a dinner birthday party that goes wrong as a hapless Adam (Zac Cohen) tries to come to terms with getting older, still living with his mum, seriously messing up the food, having a brother who’s womanising the girl he likes, and the list goes on. This is intensified by the cast of four other supporting characters. Nathan, played with so much conviction I’m not convinced it was all entirely acting by Zac Harvey-Wright, is Adam’s brutish brother who, despite his numerous other current conquests, is still desperately trying to bed Bea. Presented with great comedic characterisation by Hannah Elkins, Bea is a clean freak with a real thing about food. Elwin is a PHD student addicted to Keeping Up with the Kardashians played unashamedly by Michael Ahomka-Lindsay, a personal favourite of mine. That leaves Miranda, the Chelsea Daddy’s girl type with a head full of herself and a nose full of cocaine, played excellently by an extremely vocally talented India Plummer.
Some very slick direction from Isabelle Pead allowed for this ground floor of Adam’s mums house to become fully alive, and Isabelle has done an incredible job of bringing these characters fully out of their shells. If for one second anyone hadn’t quite hit the mark it’d have completely ruined the connection with the audience, but thankfully this was not the case. Joe Reeves’ musical direction led the play with incredibly funky jazz pieces and soulful strains that lent themselves excellently to the comedic moments. Unfortunately at times it seemed as if this dampened the more serious moments, but this doubt was put to bed swiftly after Plummer’s incredibly moving solo “Never Really High”.
On the whole, the writing was good, with believable characters and clever references bringing the text to the modern day. At times it did feel as if it wasn’t really going anywhere, both stylistically and plot-wise. Stylistically the show seemed to begin by almost poking fun at the musical form, with songs like “Wardrobe of Women”, “Raw Chicken,” and of course “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” taking the idea of songs in musicals and almost belittling them by making them about things many would see as trivial. I actually quite liked this, and spent the first half of the play thinking that it was incredibly clever to write a musical that makes fun of musicals. However, when the serious underlying emotions began to arise, and characters really started to break out into soliloquies, I realised that maybe I had read too much into it. Of course, there absolutely nothing wrong with having a little fun in a performance, it was just a tad confusing from an analytical point of view. Plot-wise there were some times where I felt like more could have been done. The plot didn’t really seem to advance much beyond just “We’re at a dinner party and it’s going badly” which is fine, for farce. I would have liked to have seen the character’s advance more and to have had a little more chaos on the stage. The end sees a confusing moment where a group of very pissed off friends attack Adam, but as soon as they remember it’s his birthday everything is resolved within the course of a 2 minute song break. Had the production been half an hour longer, and with more music, I think the creative team could really have had some fun with playing with the characters and the chaos of the situation a little bit more, and letting the audience feast down on the comedy.
With that said, I shouldn’t let it detract from what was an incredibly slick show and very hard to believe was completely new material. I thought the show would not be out of place at the Edinburgh Fringe. There were strong vocal and physical performances from start to finished accompanied by a unique and interesting musical backing, which led to a funny show and one that I very much enjoyed watching.
Confessions begins in a murder scene with a bunch of ominous figures staring down toward a broken body of Reverend Stephen Peter, played by the ever-entertaining Lindsey Fransman with an ironically devilish charm. The people staring down include a money hungry businessman, his notoriously adulterous wife and neglected daughter; an almost psychotic assistant; and a disgruntled factory worker-turned kleptomaniac. Helpfully on hand to guide Stephen Peter through his trip down memory lane are a squad of angels, who have the unpleasant job of deciding whether or not Stephen Peter gets to go to heaven or to hell, which they do through a series of songs, naturally.
Emre Kose gives a quick witted and incredibly humorous performance as Gary, a money hungry egotist and local celebrity. Lucy, Gary’s wife, has both an unapologetically large libido and a personality to match, presented by Becky Lyle with colourful performance that just oozes sex and yet retains a glimmer of human fragility underneath. Notably playing a role in both productions, Zac Harvey-Wright portrays Will, Gary’s employee who falls in love with Lucy and crafts a plan to get her back by getting his boss out of the picture.
Sophie Rush has clearly hit the gold mine in her pursuit to direct this piece as every single moment had the potential to be a comedic one. An incredibly clever script and concept, partnered with a solid standard of musical composition directed by Jake Pople, meant that the show had the potential to be of an excellent standard. Rush did not disappoint. Every moment that was supposed to be funny was. Every character had a wonderful and suitable performance that left them both believable and entertaining. Throughout you are left both sympathetic to the Reverend, as well as disgusted by him. This must not have been an easy thing to do, and my full respect goes to Rush for the great job she did.
The piece itself was lively, entertaining and a joy to watch. With a well written plot and better written characters Harry Style and Arnoud Breitbarth are definitely on to a winner here. The plot arcs completed perfectly, and unpredictably which is more often than not an issue in new writing. I was hooked from the moment the house lights came down, and even had the songs stuck in my head for the next couple of days, despite this being the first time I had heard any of them. The play itself has an interesting topic too, and raises important questions of morality and faith. While one can probably expect not to get murdered for giving people bad advice, it does bring you to question how you can help others, or whether you even should. It left an almost sour taste because before you, you see an incredibly likeable main character, surrounded by these caricatures of human negativity, who explains exactly why he makes his decisions in the way he does, and yet still he could be punished. I find that to be a very interesting question of whether or not we should trust in ourselves, in other people or in a higher power?
There is still room for change in this shining production; I felt that at times some of the performances were a little too pantomime for my liking, but perhaps this was a result of people playing up some lines because of friends and family in the audience. Also it felt like the Angels needed more to do. Being present on stage for that long a time and splitting the small amount of lines between four people seems a little redundant, however the performances were all great and the harmonies were just – well – angelic. Aside from these things though I thought the piece was incredibly strong and is definitely one of the most original things I’ve seen from any of the musical societies in the years I’ve been on campus.
The double bill as a whole was strong, new writing is really hard so I’m very impressed with just how well they’ve done with it and I really look forward to see what Harry Style and friends come up with next. If the show goes to Edinburgh, I will definitely be there on a preview night excited to see how it’s grown since the hazy days of Stage One. Overall, an incredible display of talent from the usual suspects in the casts of both shows but a very special show of talent from the creative team too.