Sophia Hinton-Lever is blown away by the ‘new wave’ of musical theatre talent – on a barge.
As somebody who has always been able to appreciate the surprising, yet natural way that an actor can burst into song mid conversation, and a person who believes that nothing says ‘I love you’ more than an evocative duet, I have found myself in recent years defending the artistic credibility of the Musical Theatre genre. With soap stars treading the boards as leading ladies, and films such as Mamma Mia and Hairspray coming to our screens, a gentrification has occurred in the industry that has become paramount to the its decreasing popularity with the creatively sound among us. This reaction is frustrating to say the least. Those who worship the likes of Shakespeare, Sarah Kane and Brecht are happy to have ‘I Hate Musicals’ stamped across their foreheads, but have most likely never enjoyed the complex melodic accomplishments of Stephen Sondheim, or known the cultural relevance of musicals such as Jason Robert Brown’s Parade.
However, that red velvet curtain is yet to be permanently drawn! This year I have noticed a new wave of astounding musical talent, as well as an eye for the current demands in popular entertainment emerging from drama school. Issy Wroe Wright and Dora Rubinstein, recent graduates of Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, have collaborated to form the exciting new theatre company Wroe Wright and Rubinstein. But remember, their innovation comes in their performance and direction… not a kooky company name.
Their first production, The Ladies Who Lunch, premiered for a one-off showing on the Battersea Barge on ‘an ordinary Sunday’ in November. Already, those who have pre-existing notions of what a musical should be comprised of are challenged, as for those of who you are not aware, the Battersea Barge… is actually a barge. Twinned with a nautical- induced thrill, the dimly lit cabin, small round tables and relaxed lounge music loafing over mumbled chatter would ignite the interest of the most anti-Lloyd-Webber among us. The relaxed atmosphere compliments the tone of the production as a whole.
The production of The Ladies Who Lunch is a compilation of selected songs from the varied works of the great Stephen Sondheim. Wroe Wright and Rubinstein do not ask a lot of their audience and the action occurs in and around the barge, making disassociation from the tone of the songs extremely difficult – whether this be the hilarity of Lizzie Wofford’s charming performance of ‘The Boy From…’ or an almost uncomfortable level of empathy created for Dora Rubinstein in her duet with Blair Anderson from Sunday in the Park with George. To say that the performers are note perfect, or that Chris Nolan’s piano was merely good, would be simply reductive. The talent of the performers and musicians are of a level where we feel safe to listen to the complex melodies of Sondheim, without dreading the next missed beat or strained belt.
The three males within the cast; Blair Anderson, Louie Westwood and Sam O’Hanlon, are a refreshing take on what is seen to be necessary for a man in the theatrical world. Their intelligent, witty and thought-provoking performances take a much needed step away from the focus on one’s sexuality and ridiculously sculpted muscles.
Similarly, the ladies on stage, all dressed in their own personal take on the little black dress, make one exasperated as to why the standard of performer on the West End was ever let to slip when such a wealth of talent can be found on a boat in Battersea?
In short, I urge people who have a thing for innovative theatre to watch the space of Wroe Wright and Rubinstein. Who knows where the next one-off performance will be… a plane? On the London eye?
One thing is for sure, they have succeeded in their goal; to once again validate the integrity of musical theatre in the eyes of the theatrical world with a body of work that, in many opinions, has reached canonical status.
Photographs taken by Tanwen Dawn-Hiscox, edited by Taylor McGraa