Book, music and lyrics: Alex James Ellison and Tom Lees
Director: Tom Lees
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The Small space at Southwark Playhouse is turning into fertile territory for new British musicals. Just a few weeks after The Curious Case of Benjamin Button emerged as, arguably, the fringe hit of 2019, here comes a refreshing offering from a young team that can already stake a credible claim to becoming the next Rice/Lloyd Webber.
A street busker sings Change Is Bringing Me Down and gets the eponymous note in his jar as a reward. The note is passed on to a homeless person who spends it at a newsagent on scratch cards, before it goes in change to a young man who has just bought a birthday card. The passing of the fiver around its many owners links together a cycle of humorous, romantic and melancholic songs.
The busker is co-writer (along with director and music director Tom Lees), Alex James Ellison, who reappears through the show with his acoustic guitar, like a wandering minstrel. Four highly talented actor/singers – Luke Bayer, Dan Buckley, Aoife Clesham and Hiba Elchikhe – play all the characters in the linked stories, showing remarkable versatility. A four-piece band accompanies the songs.
There are times when the fiver gets forgotten, but, being of the modern plastic variety, it proves durable. The show also takes a long detour with what amounts to a songless revue sketch about a surprise party. What emerges overall is that the real linking theme is about the problems of young people making the transition from childhood to adulthood more than about any form of money. Love, loss, depression, exams, bullying, stalking, the generation gap and becoming parents all feature in a show that often feels like part of a cathartic process to counter the pain of adolescence.
If musicals stand or fall on the quality of their songs, this one definitely stands. Encompassing a variety of musical styles, intelligent lyrics combine with catchy rhythms and lovely melodies throughout the show. The writers’ work, switching effortlessly from light to shade, shows no traces of the kind of bland and predictable pop that has dragged down so many British musicals over the years.
The title invites a five-star review and it is tempting, but the show needs further work to knit all its elements together more tightly. That said, at this stage, lack of polish matters less than freshness and conviction. When creators and performers seem to believe in their material as much as this, audiences have to believe in it too.
Runs until 20 July 2019 | Image: Danny with a Camera