Book, Music and Lyrics: Jim Barne and Kit Buchan
Director: Tim Jackson
Christmas romantic comedies can be like Marmite; people either love them or hate them. That duality is expressed and explored in Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s musical Two Strangers (Carry a Cake Across New York), a two-hander that is both a critique and a celebration of the rom-com structure. It’s not an entirely new musical: under its original title of The Season, it premiered at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate in 2019. But that doesn’t stop it feeling fresh and exciting, all the same.
When film-obsessed Brit Dougal (Sam Tutty) accepts an invitation of a December trip to New York for the wedding of the father he’s never met, he brings with him expectations of the city at Christmas inspired by the movies he loves – expectations that his soon-to-be stepmother’s sister, twenty-something Robin (Dujonna Gift) finds clash with the weary realism she has gained from years living in the city.
Tutty’s puppyish enthusiasm – a twenty-five-year-old with the naiveté of a teenager – contrasts nicely with Gift’s brittle shell in ways that propel the narrative throughout. Barne and Buchan’s book gently reveals layers to each character; somewhat unusually for a new musical, the story told in the non-sung parts would be strong enough to stand on its own. If Two Strangers… were a straight play, it would still be a remarkable new work.
The duo’s songs are just as strong, whether it’s deconstructing the appeal of the classic Christmas numbers – many of which are more euphemistically about sex than people care to admit – or contrasting their opposing views of the world and their relationship (which, as you’d expect from such material, heads in a romantic direction). They vary from the fun – New York! as Dougal mansplains the city of his imagination, or On the App as the pair swipe through Robin’s Diner profile – to the more serious. Whether it’s Robin explaining why the imagined version Dougal has of his absent father doesn’t match up to reality in He Doesn’t Exist or The Argument spoken rather than sung in time to an incessant drum rhythm, the numbers match up to a pair of characters who wear their bruised and broken hearts on their sleeves.
If book and songs could occasionally match up better, the fun inherent in both makes up for such flaws. And while Soutra Gilmour’s abstract set – piles of oversized grey suitcases which open up to become hotel rooms, Chinese restaurants or coffee shops as needed – doesn’t always feel as Christmassy as the dialogue suggests, when the artificial snow arrives it does feel as if the festive season might have arrived early.
There are times in the storytelling when the lack of any other onstage characters is keenly felt, especially when it comes to the mystery of why Gift’s Robin is running errands for her demanding sister but not attending the wedding herself. But the ways in which Gift begins to thaw, and Tutty exposes a tougher edge underneath his childish effervescence, compensate for any shortcomings.
Two Strangers… is unlikely to change anybody’s mind about whether or not to love the idea of a rom-com Christmas in New York. But it contains enough for both lovers and haters of the form to enjoy – and maybe find unity in the combined spirit of Tutty, Gift, Barne and Buchan.
Continues until 20 January 2023