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‘Character investment is strong from the beginning’: AFTER YOU – TONIGHT AT THE LONDON COLISEUM (Online review)

Another week, another musical theatre innovation as Alex Parker and Katie Lam premiere a new piece of work as part of the Tonight at the London Coliseum series of concert performances managed by Stream Theatre. After a successful preview at Brasserie Zedel back in 2017, After You makes its first official West End appearance at the currently closed venue on St Martin’s Lane, using a little of the technique from other streamed performances such as the Old Vic’s In Camera productions to showcase the beautiful auditorium while making space for new writing.

Running at only 55 minutes, After You is a brief but well constructed story about musical theatre’s favourite theme – love. But like The Last Five Years currently in revival at Southwark Playhouse, this story is less the straightforward tale of boy meets girl who live happily ever after. It is more a two-hander that plays with convention to examine the nature and reliability of a connection generated between two people at a crossroads while considering grand notions of universal insignificance – to slightly misquote Rick Blaine at the end of Casablanca, ‘the problems of two little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world’.

Structurally, the story is set chronologically on two legs of a cruise ship travelling between London and New York in which the male and female characters meet accidentally. She is an American lawyer based in London heading home after her grandmother dies, he is a singer employed on the ship but looking for a big break in the US. Parker and Lam envisage a sequence of scenes told through book and songs in which the couple get to know each other on the outward voyage in Act One which lasts around 40-minutes, while the much shorter Act Two takes place 2 weeks later on the return journey as the consequences of their relationship play out.

In staging After You, director Jordan Murphy takes inspiration from the Old Vic, visually framing this story against the beautiful interior of the London Coliseum, placing the actors, musicians and cameras backwards on the stage. While theatres remained largely closed, streamed shows are as much a reminder of the venues themselves as the work being performed, but the decision also sits well with Parker and Lam’s attempts to contextualise the unfolding relationship between the unnamed couple, making them seem small in the looming emptiness of the auditorium behind them.

It is a tricky sell, creating an imaginary cruise ship with no scenery, sound effects or even the hint of tidal movement with the couple relocating from the arrivals hall to the lounge bars, their rooms and even the star-filled deck of the ship on a warm night. And there are no visuals to guide the audience through any of that, relying solely on the descriptions of time and place that the cast provide in the book and songs.

The Tonight at the London Coliseum series is not performed live which allows Murphy to make judicious use of cuts to advance the story more quickly than perhaps would be possible in a standard performance when time for set and costume changes would slow the pace. Given its origins in the intimate Brasserie Zedel space, Parker and Lam’s material has been constructed for a small venue without the trappings of a bigger staging where additional music or secondary characters would be required to cover periods when the primary cast are off-stage or need to swap location. The smaller scale created by streaming and the possibilities of pre-filmed editing techniques make these transitions far more practical than they would be in live performance.

The ways in which Murphy creates physical location is sparring but surprisingly evocative even in a venue as sizeable and ornate as the London Coliseum where opera and dance usually fill its stage. A performer in a coat wheels on a suitcase to indicate their arrival on the ship, a table appears with two glasses of wine for a getting-to-know you date while the lighting designer peppers the stage and the auditorium with star shapes under a purple light to imply the romantic night sky as the couple – again in coats – are drawn together on the deck of the liner. It is effectively done and while you may initially miss the bustle of other passengers, and the view of plush interiors or seascapes, very soon its absence barely registers at all.

Despite the lack of scenery and very few props, the musical never looks lost on this vast stage; at no point is the audience anywhere but on this cruise ship as a connection is forged between two strangers and with the audience. And that is down to the strength of character development. Parker and Lam have created two people who credibly sustain our attention and interest for an hour, giving them songs that evoke their interior lives and add sufficient shades of grey to suggest a more rounded emotional and physical existence beyond the immediate circumstances in which they find themselves.

The central couple are opposites of one another and their relationship is explored through the eight individual songs, some of which are briefly reprised as they must identify and then manage their growing feelings, and After You reveals these character insights through a series of duets and solo numbers that unfold like internal monologue. Unlike many love stories, the characters hardly ever sing to one another and duets depict the pair expressing similar or opposite feelings in isolation, revealing their thoughts to themselves and the audience alone which supports the misunderstandings and misdirection that drive Act Two.

It begins with This Time, a micro-character study that gives the viewer rapid insight into these two people as the journey begins. He is content with his life, happy to be where he is, living in the moment and hoping that nothing will change; she is unhappy, stuck in her own head and unable to find a way forward, unsure of what she really wants. And this song sets the scene for their interactions as the story unfolds through the second number as he bombards her with questions she seems reluctant to answer – notably the only time the couple share a song in which they actively converse – all the way through to song number eight the titular After You where both reflect on what might have been, him looking forward to a new start, her somewhat regretting the chance she didn’t take.

There is a melancholy to the music of After You with its classic musical theatre song styles performed richly by Parker on piano, guitarist Alex Hillman, bassist Adam Higgs, Will Hillman on violin and Dave Hornberger on cello who remain onstage throughout, the focus of cutaway shots in lieu of scene changes.

Parker and Lam decide not to make this a sung-through show and include a fair amount of dialogue that works very well in helping to build the relationship in a short amount of time. The writers have created a warm flirtiness between them that feels sweet and fairly realistic as these tentative friends debate the peculiarities of English idioms and develop a candidness that only strangers can experience where there are no consequences or feelings to hurt. Yet, there is no sense of the characters rushing into an emotional entanglement, the end of Act One leaves them considering a connection they haven’t outwardly expressed and it is only in the absence of one another that imaginations run wild, based on relatively little solid information. As Act Two opens, there is also a very well played argument as they talk over, contradict and rage at one another which heightens the tension well.

The female character is the more complex of the two as she navigates some difficult background circumstances that make her a reticent and sometimes self-destructive presence. There is an inner absence in the character that draws on the expanse and anonymity of America, explaining she is from a place “as nowhere as nowhere can be without being nowhere” and there are indications that her life in the UK is unhappily restricted to the ex-pat community where she hasn’t enjoyed living in London or even spent time understanding British culture, as her early conversations with him explain.

Performed by Alexia Khadime, she has a nervousness that is partially explained at the start of Act Two as the pair are sent in opposite directions, but sits permanently beneath the character who feels undeserving of attention or consideration. This gives Khadime the chance to show her range, exploring the excitement of the early meetings but also guilt, fear and anger as a frostiness creeps into the performance. The character makes an unlikely lawyer however, which would require a greater degree of certainty and confidence at least professionally assumed if not truly felt, but her logical, pessimistic approach contrasts well with the creative freedom of her fellow traveler.

Khadime’s voice is beautiful, making the most of the more emotionally insightful songs including her big number A World There to Discover in Act Two where she descries the missed opportunity. For the first time the character is vocalising the contrast between the life she had hoped for and the feeling of having left things too late, of missing the boat. There are tones of Sondheim here in her regrets, particularly The Road You Didn’t Take and while the character is far younger than Ben Stone, there is the same sense of having made a choice that she must abide be, knowing the rest of her life will never quite live-up to the fantasy of this one encounter.

After his superb performance as the firebrand Enjolras in last year’s Les Miserables: The Staged Concert Bradley Jaden plays an entirely different type of character, revealing a softer heart, happy to go with the flow but entirely caught off-guard by his connection to the lonely woman he meets aboard. He begins the show with a lie about his origins, feigning an American accent on the outward journey that he admits is to attract women, living a night time lifestyle of cruise performances and sleeping till 3pm. Like his partner, the essential goodness of the character means he never quite convinces as a lothario but Jaden uses those hidden depths to make the impact of the relationship feel credible in the remainder of the show.

This character is concerned with the bigger picture, thinking about himself in the context of the universe, fascinated by the night sky and the opportunities life presents. Seeking a permanent position in New York, Jaden gives him a playful quality, keen to enjoy every experience, eager to meet new people and to be an appealingly companion. But his emotional investment shifts and the more creative elements of his personality cause him to invest far more and quickly in the relationship that perhaps he expects, an aspect Jaden plays convincingly as the character runs away with the chance that presents itself.

His big number Voice Inside My Head is delightful, charting that alteration at the end of Act Two and (like Michael Sheen at the Old Vic) Jaden briefly turns his back to the camera to address the empty London Coliseum auditorium doubling as the great unknown. Unlike the female character, however, there is a sense of change in him during the grand finale number After You, and while he remains a positive force, the character is now open to a closer connection in a way that perhaps he wasn’t a few weeks before.

The 20-minutes of Act Two do need to be lengthened, either delaying the big revelation a little longer or finding some other way to bring the characters together for a time in the aftermath of the truth telling. And while some of the elements of this story will always require a simple live theatre staging, character investment is strong from the beginning, so much so that the slightly abrupt ending leaves the audience feeling the characters deserve just a little more time to reach a satisfying ending – though not a different one. In straightened circumstances, that a new piece of work is here at all is incredibly important and in a genre awash with love stories this small character-driven piece should have a bright future.

After You was performed as part of the Tonight at the London Coliseum concert series made available by Stream Theatre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

NB – A digital programme was unavailable so character names and song titles are assumed.

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