Writer: Christian Czornyj
Director Adam Lenson
The West End comes to The VAULT Festival with the musical Stages. With a truly stunning set, proper shiny programmes, and even a press embargo, the production values are high for a fringe event. Despite the fact that the score lacks variety, it’s certain that this musical will, in a nod to its name, see other stages.
It’s Aiden’s 17th birthday, but instead of being a day of celebration he finds out his mother is ill, perhaps terminally. He’s not quite in the mood to build the arcade computer game from scratch, his father’s birthday present, a box full of leads and circuit boards. Aiden’s family muddle along as best they can until Alice receives her CT scan results. But when they come, it’s not good news.
Aiden wishes that life were more like a video game where you have more than one life, and where the restart button is always an option. To further connect life to arcade games Christian Czornyj’s score is based on the robotic sounds of Pac-Man and Tetris. Each song, whether fast or slow, is sung to a synth background and while this sound fits nicely with the show’s subject matter, the songs do blur into each other. Perhaps with a bigger budget and a bigger venue, a live band could complement the synthesizer to give a richer sound.
As Aiden, Max Alexander-Taylor is very good, never overplaying his character’s autism, which becomes just an incidental facet to his teenage awkwardness and naiveté. As Aiden’s mother, the experienced Anna-Jane Casey brings some real emotion to her performance while Andrew Langtree, as Aiden’s father, is excellent as a man not quite sure what his next move should be. The cast is completed by Aitch Wylie playing Ellie, Aiden’s sister, who goes through an identity crisis of her own. All of them are in good voice, especially Wylie.
The real star of the show, however, is the set, two screens full of light bulbs, changing colour to give us images alike to those on old clunky computer games. When the family are at home, the lights produce a kitchen complete with a breakfast bar and a tulip in a vase. After Alice has chemo, the lights generate a wig shop, and when Ellie decides to become Lee they sweep through a wardrobe that the lights have formed, searching for a new identity. A tour-de-force designed by Czornyj and director Adam Lenson.
The show also has an interactive quality where the audience can choose between two options, which appear on the light screen. In true Ready Steady Cook mode, audience members hold up blue or red cards to determine the next scene. While this was quite fun, it did undercut the seriousness of the show: for example, amid giggles and rustling as audience members find their cards, they then have to decide whether Alice has chemo or not. With no one visible checking the audience’s choices, there is a sense that the play will go its own way regardless.
At 60-minutes, the show’s length feels just about right, and some of the songs do stand out. For instance, the early song Glitch in my System sung by Aiden, and the spirited This is Who I Am sung by Ellie are highlights. Perhaps the best song is How Do You Do This Alone? which is party reprised at the end. Some of these could be sung without the computerised background to give a greater impact.
There’s no doubting that Stages has a future after VAULT Festival, and with a few tweaks here and there, this future could be a long one too. To keep the computer game metaphor afloat, Stages is entering its final level.
Runs until 8 March 2020