Music and Lyrics: Richard Baker
Book and Lyrics: Charlie Ryall
Director: Shelley Williams
Multi-perspective shows built around a single location or set of circumstances mean audiences will have to see the same events, even the same dialogue at various points in the show in order to tie it all together, but the six run-throughs in Richard Baker and Charlie Ryall’s Tasting Notes feel excessive. A new musical staged at Southwark Playhouse, the show’s two hours and 15 minutes enjoys its premise and makes the most of its structural shape to explore these multiple lives, yet it sacrifices character depth and development in the process.
After a fraught night at LJ’s wine bar, a serious incident with a customer leaves the staff members in shock. LJ juggles dreams of success and staff support; Maggie’s plans to act disguise her longing to be loved; George burns the candle at both ends; Estzer worries for her son and Oliver is distracted by an ill pet. But what were the real stories of that day and what are the consequences of ignoring six people with troubles, lives and dreams of their own?
Tasting Notes starts with two strong ideas; first, it recognises that there are groups of people that society entirely overlooks and even those who see them every day fail to properly engage with all the things they are. Experiencing them as the title’s ‘tasting notes,’ bite-sized moments and surface impressions of the things they want to see, Baker and Ryall’s production builds on this theme as the changing narratives allows characters to express their inner thoughts, translate their meaning and outline frustration with being ignored, often for comic effect.
The second concept – of several different experiences hinging on a singular event – may not be novel but has the potential to enlarge the audience’s view of the characters as each reset expands the story, fills in the gaps and opens out the characters. Unfortunately, in this case, the idea works better on paper than it does in practice with far too much repetition in what becomes a too limited plot, over-reliant on a vastly unlikely and over-egged eleventh-hour dramatic device. The audience doesn’t see it coming but neither does it satisfy the needs of this small-scale, contained world of sensitivities and deeper substance that Baker and Ryall have spent two hours trying to build.
It creates further problems for the protagonists as well, with few of them sufficiently expanding their subplots in meaningful or consistent ways. Those in the first act fair better with LJ, Maggie and customer Joe actively participating in events that give them a life beyond the wine bar but in Act Two poor George just gets to go clubbing before becoming the instigator of other people’s stories while the show works hard to make Eszter more that her Hungarian accent but having a drunk son and a couple of tangential songs is no substitute for a properly defined personality. And the decision to play her own inner voice and songs with an English accent doesn’t sit well.
Justin Williams’ brickwork bar and tables design is impressive but dominates the Southwark Playhouse’s Little theatre, leaving limited room for performance and makes a clunky transition to the numerous external spaces that Tasting Notes visits, while Alex Musgrave’s confused lighting design changes the setting and mood from outdoor to indoor to fantasy sometimes within a few lines of a song.
Performers Nancy Zamit, Niall Ransome, Wendy Morgan, Sam Kipling, Stephen Hoo and Ryall give excellent performances with Kipling in particular charming the audience as George. But Tasting Notes is not quite the six-course banquet it wants to be and will leave you hungry on the way home.
Runs until 27 August 2022