The role of Rob is played by Tachia Newell and he is a gripping actor, compelling you to watch him as he shuffles across the space, as well as proving to be strong and commanding in his physical partner-work with Olivia Sweeney as Helen. The plot seemingly follows a love story, an unlikely pairing of poet/kitchen porter and uptown girl/art student who are drawn to the darkness and passion of each other, and yet struggle to maintain their relationship as Rob’s illness advances.
The love story doesn’t feel predictable though because it feels messy and real, their relationship is rooted in our reality as they sing about the grime of Manchester and tobacco-stained fingers. Newell has a gorgeous soulful voice which is not typically musical theatre and, because of that, there is something more brutally honest and raw about his portrayal. Olivia Sweeney has the same natural honesty to her voice, although several of the songs seem too low in pitch for her which can make it difficult to determine the words or emotion she is trying to convey. However, her performance in a pastiche of ‘hush little baby, don’t say a word’ was heart-wrenching in its simplicity of delivery. It truly felt like ‘real’ people singing about their pain.
A third character of The Animator/The Illness exists in the form of Stephen Myott-Meadows, a grim shadow haunting the positivity at the beginning of the couple’s relationship. The Animator grows bolder in his actions, manipulating Rob’s surroundings and manipulating his limbs as the illness takes hold. Yet, The Animator appeared apologetic and subservient in his physicality which was a very interesting decision, making his presence feel less malevolent but a constant anomaly to proceedings nonetheless. It is therefore a shame that sometimes this role was used as a stage manager to push the furniture on and off stage, disrupting the flow of the character.
Benji Reid has cleverly created a sparse production, the studio space littered with a couple of chairs, a bed and the live music of MinuteTaker performed at the side. The projection of comic-book outlines onto the floor, delineating the set, cleverly links this piece of theatre with the subsequent graphic novel. His direction has created moments of delicacy and beauty, contrasted with moments of haunting brutality i.e. when Rob eats his own poetry in frustration. The physical theatre moments are used to elaborate on the emotions of the moment and feel unforced in their direction, particularly the beautiful imagery of the couple slow-motion running on an upright bed to depict the fumbling rush of sex together.
Finally, the credit of this show must go to the writing, whether that credit lies with Ravi Thornton or her brother. The dark imagery, the violence of his poetry combining with its beauty felt like listening to Sarah Kane for the first time. The words take you to a place of beauty in the darkness, and that is successfully recreated in the content and performance of this new musical.
Runs until 7th June 2014
[Read the original review here.]