Book, Music and Lyrics: Jack Miles
Director: Martha Geelan
Churches in popular culture are not always places of sanctuary and while Jean Valjean’s life is redirected by the interventions of a kindly priest, for the protagonist of Jack Miles’ new musical St Anne Comes Home his association with a particular religious building and its congregation proves far more complicated. Performed in the churchyard of the Actor’s Church (St Paul’s) in Covent Garden, this simply staged production is the story of friendship, community and faith.
Rough sleeper James is drawn to the church of St Anne’s in London, a place and city he adores until an incident causes a commotion with the Sunday worshippers and complaints are made to priest Russell who feels torn between his Christian principles and protecting his flock. When James meets lonely mother Bridget, he starts to re-evaluate his choices.
Miles’ musical is one of the first new shows to be performed since the ban on live performance was lifted and in the charming surroundings of St Paul’s Churchyard it takes on an added resonance. Running at just 75-minutes, this three-character story packs in a number of themes and ideas, looking at homelessness, acts of charity, the various concepts of faith, parenthood and self-determination as each of the characters must determine their own way forward.
Miles uses a mixture of dramatic interaction between the characters in the present and various types of narration in which James, Bridget and Russell describe their actions. Sometimes they interact via straight dialogue and at others the conversations are worked into the music, a series of a dozen or so folk-inspired tunes played on a double bass, guitar and violin.
James and Bridget are fairly well drawn so the audience comes to understand their personalities and choices as the story unfolds, seeing the parallels between their situations; both are parents, both feel like outsiders and both are drawn to St Anne’s as a place of respite and soothing. The tentative development of their friendship is sweetly told, which refreshingly avoids any implication of romance, and Miles is interested in the candid, and sometimes life-changing, interaction between virtual strangers.
The brevity of St Anne Comes Home does mean a lot of events happen off stage, tying up loose ends a little too neatly sometimes or skirting around issues that should be far more complex. The resolution to Bridget’s story of implied domestic violence is simply solved and the big secret from James’ past doesn’t have quite the impact it should, while the show’s final moments uses a lapse of several weeks to make a large story leap without ever explaining why or how James got there.
Jordan Castle is a likeable lead, making James incredibly accepting of the suspicion and antipathy of others. A gentle creation, there is an essential goodness in the character which makes the audience want to root for him, although the misspent youth and bad behaviour he recalls in some of the songs could give the character a harder edge. Castle’s big moment in the emphatically performed I Confess, which showcases his vocal and performative range, is the show’s big turning point.
Rebecca McKinnis gives Bridget a emotional resonance, a dedicated mother desperate to do the best for her daughter despite often feeling powerless. Occasionally defensive when James pushes her to look at her own life, McKinnis uses songs including You Do What You Do and particularly the excellent You’re Way Off to emphasise her underlying strength and decency.
Mathew Craig’s role as priest Russell is a little underwritten, leaving him free to shoulder most of the narration duties, but Craig offers more than enough in the performance to suggest Miles might consider exploring Russell’s feelings of confliction in more detail, especially why James in particular evokes such strong feelings of guilt that forces him to question the depth of his Christian principles.
As theatres slowly reopen, it is comforting to see new work being prioritised and St Anne Comes Home is a musical with a lot of potential. A few of its darker aspects could be better explored or fleshed out but the music is charming, and its message of kindness and decency suits the churchyard setting – a regular stomping ground for Iris Theatre Company. Most of all, in a city that thrives on anonymity, it reminds the audience that every stranger has a story worth hearing.
Reviewed on 30 August 2020