Touring – reviewed at the New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich
How romantic New York is to the British heart! From Superman to Friends we seem to know it, from Elf and 34th Street (not to mention the Pogues) we hanker for its glamour at Christmas. So here are the signs, the DON’T WALK, a subway map, distant Manhattan lights, and our young hero from dull old England singing a paean to “A city of stories, where everybody’s 60 storeys high.pizza for breakfast and steam in the air!” At JFK he is met but a considerably less besotted real New Yorker, a coffee waitress who hard-sells the latest “Chestnut-ccino” to unseen customers on a minimum wage, and finds him really annoying. Will his enthusiasm melt her, or will she damp him down?
Traditionally in British criticism it is damning-faint praise to call something “charming” . It snobbishly implies a lack of depth, a failure to take on The Big Questions. But you know what? There’s a place for charm, it needn’t be empty, and some of the biggest questions are the ones which sidle up to you while you’re laughing. On screen or stage a rom-com can contain much of what you need, and send you out with a spring in your step. On a rather fraught day I was step-sprung, charmed by this miniature musical by Jim Barne and Kit Buchan, newcomers mentored by Stiles & Drew and now spotted by the leaders of the Wolsey and the Northampton theatres.
It is a two-hander, with a three-piece band overhead. Alex Cardall, fresh out of drama school, treads the fine line between infuriating and endearing Dougal, the ingénue arrival with a messy backpack, thrilled to accept a 36-hour wedding invitation from the NY bigshot father he never knew. Dad is marrying a girl half his age, and it is her sister Robyn – the glorious Tori Allen-Martin – who has been told to meet him and make sure he finds his scuzzy Chinatown B&B. He hugs her crying “Sister!” to which she sharply points out that she is, if anything, his step-aunt-in-law-to-be, and has no intention of doing the sights with him.
She can’t shake him off, though, and his puppyish enthusiasm produces some softening of her depressed, brittle mood which, deft back-story makes clear – comes from being fatherless, raised by a grandmother she now doesn’t see, being poor, and miserably hooking up with wrong ‘uns. The Christmas NY legend, she says is “All about rich people!..do you know what a Broadway show costs, or dinner in Manhattan?” The patter-song when he seizes her phone to help her judge Tinder profiles is lovely. Indeed all the songs – a few melodious, many tightly-built patter – push the story and its psychology on perfectly.
They are both unmoored, she a lonely Cinderella running errands for her sister and the rich old guy she’s caught, he with a distant mother in Ipswich and a dangerously romantic belief that his father really wants to know him. The offstage characters – Melissa and Dad Mark – grow ever more real and less satisfactory and you find that you really care about these twentysomething kids. If it doesn’t get bought up for a film I’ll eat my Santa hat.
There’s a splendid transformation scene and splurge of extravagance after Robyn is thrown her demanding sister’s sugardaddy’s credit card for an errand, giving birth to the line “Now that we’ve defrauded / Dad we can afford it!” -(God, I love a silly rhyme!). There’s a real chill in Robyn’s attempt to curb Dougal’s naivete and a barnstorming anti-Christmas finale in Chinatown. “We got dim sum, we got booze/ We got 1960s carpet, and it’s sticking to our shoes!”.
Writers and stars are all young, smart, sweet: it feels like a generation’s cry of defiant merriment: millennials finding their mistletoe moment.