Bush Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Off the back of a two-year Edinburgh Fringe tenure and a tidal wave of rapturous reviews, Hull playwright Luke Barnes’ gig theatre opus All We Ever Wanted Was Everything arrives at Shepherd’s Bush. Spanning a 30-year timeline from 1987 to 2017, the play drops in on our everyman heroes, Leah and Chris, at ten-year intervals as we watch them start as children dreaming the impossible as life slowly shapes them into something more unremarkable – dreams are put aside, compromises are made, self-doubt replaces a belief that if you can dream it, you can be it.
Each era is punctuated by period-evocative music by composer James Frewer. While the play doesn’t directly use real-world music, it patchworks motifs and lyrical snatches to successfully evoke each time period with its original soundtrack – a keen listener can play spot-the-reference for the whole 75-minute running time.
The show is presided over and narrated by Marc Graham’s MC character, a vision of Northern charm and eyeliner. Much of the narrative text is in rhyming verse, to create the effect of an epic poem about the stubbornly un-epic: everyday life. And it’s here where Barnes deserves the most praise: in refusing to sprinkle saccharine pixie dust over his characters’ lives, he creates an uncompromising tableau of grit and salt that would be bleak were it not for the colourful, musical staging.
It’s a rich setup, but for me, the payoff isn’t fully realised. While skilful in places, the writing occasionally sags, and a cynical part of me couldn’t fight the suspicion that the show is scoring cheap nostalgia points by name-checking things like Virgin Megastores and the Nokia 5110. As the play builds to a final act in which the humanity of our characters is slowly extinguished, in more ways than one, I found myself wondering what it was trying to say. As its narrative threads came together in an intense finale, the message we are sent home with felt somehow preachy and non-committal at the same time.
This is not a show without skill at the wheel – Barnes has an ear for the wonder in the everyday, the direction is assured and the cast work hard. But the piece ends up as a curate’s egg – a forceful, thoughtful experiment that fails to stick its landing.