IN BRIEF Smart and compassionate contemporary musical soars when sung but flags when script takes over.
There’s a lot to like in Alex James Ellison’s and Tom Lees’ London-set FIVER, playing at the Little space at Southwark Playhouse.
The neat premise involves the complex journey from one hand to another of a humble five pound note, a sort of financial LA RONDE if you like. Comprising a series of musical snapshots of (very) varying length, the show is at its best when singing, and the music is of a quality that stays with you after the show.
A street busker (Alex James Ellison, the show’s composer) tops and tails the show and interjects at various points; he is well-qualified to do so, having the ability to work a room. His neat trick is to ask for the titular fiver from an audience member, and its return at the end of the show is neat too. As for the scenes, most are relatively short, involving one key song, and the show moves along nicely. Unfortunately, the pace falls off when we get to some over-extended dialogue scenes (at a party, and a park proposal) which made me long for the music’s return.
Along the journey we meet a wide variety of young characters all with issues to cope with, trying to find their way in the big city. Playing multiple characters through the show, the four singer/actors (plus Ellison) are at their best when signing, the often-layered vocals performed with aplomb. The music is varied in style but engaging, and deserves its space in the show. Highlights for me included an entreaty by a wife to her husband to talk about his grief in the plaintive but empathetic “Whisper it To Me”, beautifully sung with skill and restraint by Hiba Elchikhe. Aoife Clesham’s song “Press Hash to Rerecord” was a comic highlight, charting the escalating un-success of a recently dumped woman attempting to leave a relaxed voicemail for her ex. Also worthy of note, the heavy but hopeful “For Your Light to Shine” was a lovely shaft of light in the midst of world-weary uncertainty. The cheeky fast-forward into the interval (“A Fiver’s Destiny”) was also very funny and well-done.
London can be a lonely place, and the struggle to connect with others and feel “at home” is a key theme that runs through this show. Its view of London as having threats and challenges as well as shafts of kindness, thoughtfulness and hope is a potent mix which the audience responded to. The episodic nature of the script avoids having to delve into issues too deeply, but in contrast to this approach the recurring sub-plot about a stalker seemed out of place and unresolved.
The capable band of four are MD-d by Tom Lees (the show’s book writer/ director), frustratingly they are sometimes over amplified to the point that in several of the songs the singers have to struggle to be heard which takes the edge off the enjoyment of the lyrics. At times this makes it a struggle for the audience to engage with the songs which is unfortunate.
London theatre needs more smart and compassionate musicals like FIVER, and I am sure that with a reworked book this could have a much longer life ahead.
FIVER runs at Southwark Playhouse until July 20. Information and tickets here