Garrick Theatre – until 17 October 2021
They say lightning never strikes twice: I beg to differ. Jonathan O’Boyle’s inspired actor-musician take on Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle-cum-musical felt like an eye-opening reinvention of a fascinating but conflicted piece (one half of the doomed love story between a pair of engaging, volatile creatives runs in chronological order while the other runs backwards; the two strands connect at the wedding) when it premiered at Southwark Playhouse in early 2020.
It seemed then that O’Boyle, in tandem with a crack creative team and terrific duet of performers, had found a way of making this technically breathtaking but sometimes frustratingly cerebral piece achieve genuine theatrical fire.
The actors (Molly Lynch and Oli Higginson, both still here and, almost unbelievably, even better than before) accompanied each other at the piano, swapped each other’s props and clothing out, and generally felt like an authentic team which then meant you felt as heartbroken as they did when their relationship fell into ruins. Watching it now in the cream and gold opulence of the West End’s Garrick however, it almost feels like a whole new show. I didn’t think you could improve on perfection, but it would appear that you actually can.
This is more moving, funnier yet more tortured, and more visually satisfying than the earlier iteration. Aurally and musically, it also feels more variegated: Adam Fisher’s pin sharp sound design, swelling but never distorting the volume for a larger space, ensures that we in the audience get every timbre in George Dyer, Leo Munby and Nick Barstow’s orchestrations and almost every one of Jason Robert Brown’s witty, devastatingly acute lyrics.
Musically, it’s lush, yet spiky, and always endlessly delightful. “The new Sondheim” is a term that gets bandied about loosely and it would feel appropriate to apply it to JRB until you check out his resumé and realise that he is actually just THE Jason Robert Brown, and that will more than suffice.
Lee Newby’s set, beginning with a grand piano spinning in space and ending as a petal strewn fusion of battlefield and celebration, benefits from having more space to work with, and is lit with painterly panache and precision by Jamie Platt. The stage morphs from glitzy to stark in the blink of a tear-filled eye. It looks utterly gorgeous.
The last London edition of the piece, at The Other Palace and directed by JRB himself, starring Samantha Barks and Jonathan Bailey, was superbly performed but felt a bit inert. This version, rendered with forensic sensitivity by O’Boyle with brilliant movement direction by Sam Spencer-Lane, was always full of invention but has now acquired a gloss and dynamism that makes it worth every penny of your West End ticket money.
It also succeeds in making the self-absorbed characters rather more sympathetic than usual. That has a lot to do with the innate likability of Lynch and Higginson: insufferable though both characters can be – he the arrogant, preternaturally gifted novelist, she the needy, insecure actress – you inevitably find yourself rooting for them.
If Oli Higginson was sensational before, investing author Jamie with a Manhattan intensity, a lithe athleticism and the arrogance of youth, topped off with an exhilarating, skyscraping rock tenor, he has now acquired an extra sheen of vulnerability. This interestingly redresses the sympathy balance somewhat between him (he does cheat on her first, as far as we know) and Molly Lynch’s bewitching Anne Hathaway doppelgänger Cathy.
Lynch’s performance, previously utterly exquisite, feels like it has changed even more radically. As her side of the story plays out/unravels, she infuses the frustrated actress with a new bitterness and fury that throws her earlier joy into even starker relief (Cathy’s story moves backwards, so her enraptured final number “Goodbye Until Tomorrow” as she contemplates a first date with Jamie is almost unbearably poignant given that we know what’s coming). Irresistibly funny and with a powerful but sweet voice that can apparently sing anything, Ms Lynch is the real deal, the kind of musical theatre talent they used to write shows for. They still should.
If you saw this gem of a show at Southwark and thought you didn’t need to go again, treat yourself to another visit: time, space and perspective has lent it a significant upgrade. If you didn’t see it before….what are you waiting for?! Any musical theatre fan that doesn’t experience this is missing a major treat; it enriches the West End. I can’t wait to go back.