The Lightening Road – St Paul’s Church, London

Writer / Composer: Flora Leo

Director: Susan Raasay

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Just two weeks away from the centenary of the Armistice, Remembrance Day this year will understandably focus almost entirely on the First World War even though Britain’s servicemen have fought in many conflicts in the last hundred years. But before all eyes turn to the cenotaph, Iris theatre has premiered its new Second World War musical, The Lightning Road for one night only at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden.

During a particularly violent storm in Wisconsin Emmeline is struck by lighting and taken to safety by a mysterious stranger. Eight years later, now a military nurse she develops an unexpected attachment to a young priest she meets only in the confessional box who mysteriously disappears. Cole has decided to give up the priesthood for the woman he loves, but first he needs to enlist. As both are posted overseas, will love survive the battlefields of Europe?

Flora Leo’s new musical isn’t yet fully shaped but has a solid basis to work from as Leo develops the story and the characters. The idea is an intriguing one, highly romantic but fairly unusual as a priest grapples with his faith, a sense of patriotic duty and love for a woman he’s only seen once, while Leo creates a female co-lead with a troubled backstory, a difficult day job and a group of potentially interesting friends sharing the semi-powerless and emotive experience of women in wartime.

It’s a good start but The Lightning Road needs some better shaping and some additional work on the book which becomes overly sentimental and schlocky in the second act. The central pairing of Emmeline and Cole feels rather anaemic as a series of too short scenes establish the relationship so quickly that the audience hasn’t had time to invest in them yet, while their stories run on parallel tracks making it hard to believe they could be so devotedly in love as they claim. There is mention of a shady backstory for Cole that never materialises and the preamble with the lightning strike is a useful metaphor, but it adds very little meaning to the main story.

The central love affair may fail to convince, but there is a huge potential in a sweet subplot between nurse Maggie (Leonie Marie Richardson with a real 40s movie star look) and a solider she meets at a local dance, Gus (Jack Donald), who she pushes away before war can come between them. Maggie is particularly interesting and fleshing out this story would add the kind of depth Leo is looking for and her song I Will Break Your Heart is beautifully and meaningfully performed by Richardson.

Emmeline’s entirely superfluous sister disappears in Act Two, and while the other secondary roles are mostly caricatures, they could more fully examine the different perspectives of nurses, priests and soldiers in the conflict. Leo may draw on the swoonsome romantic films of the period, yet our knowledge of battle has moved beyond the propaganda so a few grittier scenes of men at war would make it more convincing. Neurasthenia is given a throw-away mention by Emmeline’s father Arthur (an excellent Brendan Roberts in an underwritten role) but never properly examined, and while Cole has one scene with his comrades, the driving need to fight alongside these men doesn’t really come through.

The actors do really well with the material however and Ruari Kelsey as Cole in particular gives an excellent musical performance with a series of powerful solos. Occasionally Betsy Lee-Miller struggles to be heard over the music and the pair lack chemistry, but Lee-Miller does her best with a fairly weak part. Director Susan Raasay uses the space well, controlling entrances and scenes around the room, although the flat nature of the seating in this particular space meant the stage is very difficult to see, especially as characters frequently sit so, some thought should be given to visibility in whichever venue The Lightening Road travels to next.

There also seem to be a few deliberate references to Les Miserables, not just in Cole’s songs but in a few of the scenarios as well; a priest welcoming a homeless traveller at the start, Arthur happily bestowing his daughter on Cole while they sit behind the lines, a song about rain while someone dies and a soldier carrying another to safety across his shoulders as Jean Valjean carried Marius. The link is quite subtle but if it is a key reference point, then it might be interesting to clarify what the comparisons mean.

Clearly, the company have worked hard and with minimal set imagined ways to transport the audience from America to Europe via churches, dance halls and battlefields. The Lightning Road is a really good start, very watchable in its current form and with lots of potential to grow into a meaningful Second World War musical.

Runs Until 26 October 2018 | Image: Contributed

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