Sunday, September 21, 2014

'Disappearing Wonderful' at the Tristan Bates Theatre, 20th September 2014

They say to write what you know. Disappearing Wonderful, a new work by an MA Musical Theatre student, sticks to this maxim like glue.  This is a musical exploring the frustrations and lack of direction of recent arts graduates.  It's a familiar tale: students blinking in the harsh light of day as they emerge like baby birds from the cosy nest of university. Spread ing their little wings they hurl themselves into the unknown.  A few lucky ones catch an updraft and vanish over the horizon.  The rest smack into the ground in an unemployed tangle of bones and feathers, easy prey for Starbucks, call centres and questionable medical trials.

Disappearing Wonderful is about the latter crowd.  We open to a reunion that marks ten years since college.  Egos jostle against each other in a sea of mutual paranoia and competitiveness.  Amidst braying arseholes and the smug familied, our leads Steve, Freddie and Lizzie are black holes of disappointment.  They shrink together for security, feeling stuck on pause while their former classmates race ahead in fast-forward.

In the depths of their misery we flash back to just after their graduation.  Determined to give being an artist one last stab they decide to pool their talents.  Steve, wrestling with an incomplete novel resolves to finish it, Freddie will try to rediscover a love of painting and Lizzie will manage both of them.  Thing is, we already know they're doomed to fail, cloaking events in a gloomy atmosphere.  

This makes for a bitter little pill of a musical.  Traditionally musical theatre presents audiences with an escape from reality - to a world of epic romance, cartoonish humour or feelgood triumphalism.  Here, James Long, the Goldsmiths masters student responsible for the book, music and lyrics, drags the medium down to the kitchen sink (probably piled high with dirty dishes), externalising worries no doubt at the forefront of the minds of many in the audience.

At just an hour long, character development is compressed down to the bare essentials.  We learn just enough about Steve, Freddie and Lizzie to sympathise with their situation, but the limited run-time results in them being sketched out in broad strokes.  This means that while it's easy to sympathise with them and you recognise your own fears, it's difficult to become properly involved in their individual dramatic arcs.  The upshot is that while there's a few dramabombs launched in the last scenes, these fizzle out rather than explode.

But it's easy to forgive the occasional misstep, fumble or bar of off-key singing. Disappearing Wonderful is undoubtedly rough around the edges, but it's this handspun quality that makes it difficult to criticise too harshly. Musically it's consistently entertaining, the book peppered with lyrical flourishes deployed with gusto by the cast.  A common pitfall that Long avoids is the temptation to pause the drama to make way for the songs. 

With that in mind, my personal highlight was Dannie Payne's performance towards the end of the show.  Beans have been spilled all over the place, leaving her she's distraught and vulnerable.  Up to this point most of the show has been low-key stuff, but here Payne sings in loud, cathartic lungfuls - giving the show a crucial injection of passion.  It's in this performance that the frustrations that have been building up finally dramatically blossom.

Similarly impressive is a sharply written rant on the psychology of CV construction.  In a stream of machine-gunned consonants, Patrick McHugh takes us through the game of who you're writing for.  You know that what's on your CV is bullshit, the prospective employer knows it's bullshit and yet you both engage in a complicated dance around the truth.  Having to pimp yourself out to employers is a dispiriting, soul-crushing experience - outlined perfectly in this mini-monologue which gets an impressed and much deserved round of applause.

Moments like these go a long way towards making Disappearing Wonderful a worthwhile experience.  You get the impression that this is the creative team exploring what they can do with the medium.  It's musically promising, works well within the confines of its staging and budgetary limitations and wraps up at just the right time.  Promising work from all, I look forward to seeing what this team accomplishes on a larger scale.

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