Song From Far Away – Hampstead Theatre, London

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Simon Stephens and Mark Eitzel

Director: Kirk Jameson

Simon Stephens has already written one desperately sad monologue with Sea Wall, and now Song From Far Away, first seen in 2015, returns. The story of a man going back home to attend his brother’s funeral is full of fragile detail and desolate loneliness. Pop Idol alumnus Will Young gives the performance of his life in his portrayal of a man weighed down with grief and bitterness.

Andrew Scott is now synonymous with Sea Wall, which he first performed back in 2008 and then again in 2018. In a similar way, Young makes an indelible impression in the role of Willem (played by Dutch actor Eelco Smits in 2015), a 34-year-old New Yorker who returns to Amsterdam when his brother Paulie dies from a heart attack. It seems that he goes out of duty rather than love. We learn next to nothing about his brother.

On the morning that he hears about Paulie’s death, Willem has gone to work early, walking through New York’s morning streets which are full of boys who smell like “mint, leather and coffee.’ There’s a vividness to this morning which is in stark contrast to the Amsterdam he flies to later that day. Of course, the capital cities are linked; New York was once called New Amsterdam and later Willem tells his ex-lover that the cities are similar in that they both pursue money; it’s just that New Yorkers are more up-front about it.

Willem doesn’t go home straight away. Instead, he stays in the Lloyd Hotel, a building used in the past to house both migrants and immigrants. It’s the perfect place for Willem, stranded in a city that he can longer call home. He finds company in a gay bar, but Marcello is a traveller too. There could be a connection between them but Willem will find a way to push Marcello away.

His character may be 34, but Young plays Willem as an older man, jaded and cynical, never expecting to be surprised. There’s something mean and queeny about Willem’s gestures and vocal expressions that suggest that he’s just as lonely back in New Amsterdam as he is in his home city. Occasionally, he comes across as sour and ungenerous, but Young, in his demeanour and within brittle and vulnerable silences, hints that this is caused by a huge disappointment or hurt. Or perhaps it’s just the result of not being loved.

Stephens crafts Willem as an unreliable narrator and, until the end, we never see him through the eyes of another. This late revelation means we have to place Willem in a new light and reassess his relationship with his family and friends. His solitude is devastating.

It’s a brave role for Young to take on seeing as he lost his own twin brother to suicide in 2020. How he manages to get through some of the scenes, all of which involve Willem addressing his dead brother, without becoming too emotional shows incredible strength. Young’s Willem is distantly restrained throughout.

Occasionally, the dramatic flourishes of Ingrid Hu’s set, a smart but anonymous hotel suite, are unnecessary when Stephens’s story and Young’s acting are so compelling. The song in the title, written by American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel, comes in snatches. It’s a song that Willem hears in the gay bar or in the background when he’s talking to his ex on the phone. It, too, is restrained. Instead of being redemptive or cathartic, this song from far away is layered with a loneliness that chills the bones like an Amsterdam winter.

Runs until 22 July 2023

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A song for the lonely

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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