Southwark Playhouse, London – until 21 August 2021
In the hot and sweaty Little auditorium we are back to full capacity and seeing a new musical live on stage. We are in a typical 1980s bedroom with posters, gadgets, and graffiti on the wall.
Rachel Tucker is Jen, aged seven, who welcomes a baby brother John (Lewis Cornay, who wrote the award-winning Snowflake) in 1985. As they grow, with battling parents – mum hardly present, dad a bully – they promise to always look after each other. They share a hiding place and a bond to protect each other.
Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald’s show was originally a one act piece, with prologue and epilogue still present. John and Jen become different people as she enjoys college and raves in New York, and he goes from the annoying brother who ruins his sister’s basketball games and dates to a mini-me of his (unseen, but probably gun-toting and ultra-patriotic) dad.
By the interval he has become a casualty of a war which he supports and she does not: the reason they parted on a quarrel with harsh words. As he appears as a spirit in the first scene this doesn’t come as a shock, but the ‘epilogue’ as it is billed is bittersweet and beautifully played.
Act two, or play two, is more uneven from a plot perspective. Jen now (in 2005) has a baby boy who she names after her brother, planning to pass on all his possessions and protect this John in the way she failed to in act one. She quickly becomes a suffocating presence in his life as the single parent who clips to his wings to keep him from flying away into harm.
There is a mirror scene of the basketball game in act one, as Jen becomes the baseball mom from hell, but a sequence around reality game shows takes the piece off the rails, from which it takes a while to recover. There is a resolution, though, where love wins out and mother and son reach an understanding.
The songs (with orchestrations by Lippa and Jason Robert Brown) are very good – witty, poignant, playful, with a couple of powerhouse numbers for Tucker. Cornay is a star in the making, capturing the youthful exuberance of a growing boy as both Johns, and demonstrating an excellent vocal versatility.
While John & Jen can sometimes veer into the sentimental, it does try to bring in numerous issues in modern America, and particularly succeeds in bringing to life the special bond between siblings. Guy Retallack directs, and musical director Chris Ma leads the four-piece band (violinists Tom Crofton-Green and Elaine Ambrose, who also plays viola; cellist David Hornberger).
Image credit: Danny Kaan