Floyd Collins – Wilton’s Music Hall, London

Book: Tina Landau
Music and Lyrics: Adam Guettel
Director: Jonathan Butterell
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

In our social media age, disaster tourism has become increasingly common and now any natural or human-led disaster will lead to a vast media circus that attracts all kinds of spectators. But this is not a new phenomenon, which partially explains the latest revival of Tina Landau and Adam Guettel’s 1996 musical Floyd Collins at Wilton’s Music Hall examining the increasingly distorted effect of a small-town calamity.

Floyd Collins is a caver living in Kentucky in 1925 where he and his colleagues mine for precious ores and metals. Collins seeks fame and fortune but one of his exploratory missions leaves him trapped and unable to wrench himself free. As family members, colleagues and friends try to extract him, Collins’ story becomes a media sensation and the world waits to see if he’ll ever escape.

tell-us-block_editedA musical based on a man trapped in a cave for two and half hours doesn’t sound very riveting and, unfortunately, in practice it’s even less interesting than that. Written 20 years ago and frequently revived, this is not a piece that has aged well and Jonathan Butterell’s latest production does nothing to iron out the frustrating inconsistencies, poor characterisation and tedium of the original. The opening section in which Collins squeezes through the tunnels to discover an untapped area lasts an awfully long time for a scene setter, but it establishes the tone for what is a drawn out evening.

Although many of the key characters have their own song and the talented company performs them very well, the cast barely rises above a two-dimensional sketch with reams of extraneous characters that start to blur into one another. Floyd’s sister, Nellie, we are told has recently been released from an asylum, but Rebecca Trehearn’s calm performance makes her seem the sanest person there, while the relationship between Nellie and Floyd that has them singing ballads to one another hints at an incestuous proximity that doesn’t fit with the innocent tone Butterell has created.

Similarly, themes and subplots are thrown about with very little follow through, leaving Jack Chissick as the puritanical father Lee Collins and Sarah Ingram as stepmother Miss Jane with nothing to do but look worried. Even Samuel Thomas’ Homer who starts off so well with an evident love for his brother and desperation to help, gets spotted by a random movie producer and suddenly runs off to become a star. Understandably, these kind of events create chaos for all those involved but Butterell never seems to have a grip on all these ideas, so instead of demonstrating the increasing intensity of the situation, it just becomes an assortment of bits and pieces that feels messy.

Ashley Robinson as Floyd is onstage throughout – a significant demand – and much of that is wedged on a board that hovers over the stage, reminding us that he is the cause of everything that happens. But despite Robinson’s excellent voice, it’s difficult to feel much sympathy for his character, nor is his decline charted with any depth. Unfortunately, he’s also stuck with some dreadful lyrics including an awful lot of yodelling, which becomes his signature tune and grates very quickly. Nice work, though, from Daniel Booroff as reporter Skeets Miller, who tries to help.

This production is well staged, however, on a tiered scaffold that nicely implies the various levels of the cave structure, while Guettel’s music is very well served by Tom Brady’s orchestra, mixing the more country-inspired songs with the high emotion Lloyd-Webber-esque ballads, although at times they make the lyrics inaudible. The high point is the Act Two opener Is That Remarkable demonstrating the growing publicity surrounding Collins’ story and the vulture-like nature of the reporters.

Unfortunately, Floyd Collins is a musical that didn’t need to be revived, and for a tale concerned with a life or death rescue attempt, it is curiously lacking in dramatic tension. Sadly some good performances and thoughtful staging cannot rescue a lacklustre production that just has nothing to say, but takes an awfully long time to say it.

Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image: Contributed

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