Southwark Playhouse, London – until 22 July 2017
The Superhero brings with it high expectations after Joseph Finlay and Richy Hughes won the 2015 Stiles and Drewe Best New Song Award with “Don’t Look Down”. It’s easy to see why – the song combines all the expected elements into a magical finale number. A catchy melody with punchy, staccato chorus; intricate lyrical poetry that fuses comedy, pathos and emotional depth.
The ending to an 80-minute long, one-man musical, in which all elements seem stacked against it, epitomises the journey that both solo performer Charlie Bradley (Michael Rouse) and audience take together. It’s the story of his battle to keep his daughter in his life, after a stupid mistake ruins his picture-perfect family unit. Bradley is the bad guy, the reason his marriage fails. But Michael Conley’s book deftly humanises him, a stupid man who did a stupid thing and is simply trying to make the best of the situation before his daughter is ripped away from him.
“Don’t Look Down” may be an obvious choice for a prize-winning song, but it doesn’t stand alone amid other sub-standard material. Finlay and Hughes draw inspiration from Spamalot and BloodBrothers in a plethora of fused styles – each song pulls at the heartstrings, making us laugh and cry and fall deeper in support of Bradley’s plight.
Much of this is down to Rouse, who as a solo performer easily navigates a variety of characters with ease – cocky Londoner, woeful narrator, even Richard “The Knobhead” lawyer and Jason “Fathers for Justice” protester. His voice is deep and full of vibrato that pierces the hearts of the audience in “Old Father Thames”, but equally lends itself to a vaudeville piss-take in “All American Dad”. Variety is Rouse’s strength, a facet required to deal with the roles of scorned ex-wife, innocent daughter and down in the dumps dad without tripping over himself.
For all that Rouse captivates the audience, it is Conley’s book that gives him the breadth of material to work with. Conley is observant and real, immediately presenting an affable lead that is happy to be ordinary – he is more than that in his daughter’s eyes. This is the story of an Average Joe and that is what endears him so quickly and so completely to his audience.
Combining Conley’s keen eye for the comedy in the ordinary with Finlay’s musical styles makes for an impactful foundation for Rouse to work with – the musical structure of “Another Afternoon with Emily” in particular is innovative and contemporary. The third line in each stanza ingeniously modulates for subtle emphasis on the beauty in the ordinary – Bradley is so happy to spend time with his little girl that the small things stand out in his mind. ‘We watch a Scooby Doo cartoon’; ‘We buy a helium balloon’; ‘Can you read me Goodnight Moon?’, the moments that make up a cherished relationship that is cultivated less and less.
Book and music and firmly in favour of The Superhero, but it is Hughes’ lyrics that elevate the musical to nomination worthy. Each song further flexes Hughes’ poetic muscles, clever rhyming strands that interweave and delight throughout every verse. The highlights of “You Got Me” and “Other Children’s Parents” may come at the start of the show, but they are well supported by the remaining material.
Cycling round to an unexpected, imperfect conclusion in the book is exactly what the musical requires – an ending that isn’t perfect, but is honest and real and all the more believable. “You Got Me” – a song that crosses oceans and bridges the gaps in broken marriages. The Superhero – a musical that reinvigorates the British new musical scene and bridges the gap between our American rivals.