Southwark Playhouse, London – until 6 October 2018
Any musical can only be as good as its underlying book and Wasted, based upon the lives of the four Brontë siblings (three girls and a boy) is written around a very strong core. Bursting into the Southwark Playhouse, this is a brave show that celebrates the famed achievements of Charlotte, Emily and Anne and, in a marked contrast to a number of the capital’s recent openings, audaciously dares to presume that its audience has a basic knowledge of classical English literature.
Wasted is a defiant and intelligent display of strong womanhood, set in era of rampant chauvinism. Not only that, but its score comes close to matching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton with its diverse range of incorporated musical styles and sources.
The show’s title stems from the Brontës never having lived to know the impact that their writings were to have upon the English canon and that their lives had been little more than wasted. Carl Miller’s book sets out a clear historical arc that tracks the family’s lives in and around Haworth and their occasional ventures beyond the village.
Whilst their curate father provided for the children’s every intellectual desire, remote Yorkshire left them emotionally impoverished with Anne’s heartfelt lament, ‘No-One To Marry For Miles’, defining the isolation. By way of marked contrast, when they make a first visit to the coast at Bridlington, Charlotte’s number ‘Infinite Eternity’ soars with the passion of her discovering the beauty of the sea.
Christopher Ash’s compositions are, for the most part, ingenious and time-spanning. ‘Tiny Magazines’, sung by the Brontës when young, is a delicious a cappella four-part harmony. Elsewhere there is blues, electro and even some moments of beat-boxing, interspersed with beautiful balladry and some sometimes-wonderful rock.
The show’s women are knockout, with Natasha Barnes storming it as Charlotte. Barnes bears an electrifying power that can conquer the biggest songs and with both (Extra)Ordinary Woman and the show’s closing title number, she takes Southwark’s roof off. Siobhan Athwal (and the show’s construct) offers an intriguing glimpse into Emily Brontë, a desperately private woman, clinging to the fringes of sanity. Yet underneath the mania we also glimpse the wild genius that created Wuthering Heights and Heathcliff. Molly Lynch is, as ever, vocally enchanting as Anne Brontë. The lesser known of the three sisters, every song Lynch delivers is a gem as she imparts a youthful wisdom to the complex role.
Molly Lynch, Siobhan Athwal, Matthew Jacobs Morgan, Natasha Barnes
Making up the quartet is Matthew Jacobs Morgan’s Branwell Brontë. While Morgan’s work is flawless, the show in its current iteration is too long and were Branwell’s character to be cut from a future revision, the whole piece could well become tighter.
While director Adam Lenson draws strong work from his foursome, his direction at times becomes as tangled as the mic cables that clutter the stage posing both a distraction to the audience as well as a health & safety risk to the actors. The mics are merited given the quasi-rock staging of the piece, but wireless will work better. Likewise, the overall balance of the Southwark sound mix needs a lot more work,
On a virtually bare stage. Matt Daw and Sam Waddington’s clever lighting adds both location and nuance to the show, as Joe Bunker’s band (that includes some lovely country melodies from Isabel Torres on ukulele) puts in a fine shift throughout.
Wasted doesn’t pretend to be an easy show to watch – but within it there is excellence. It is one of the finest and most carefully crafted pieces of new musical theatre writing to hit London this year.
Runs until 6th OctoberPhoto credit: Helen Maybanks