A whistle-stop tour of the antebellum South

Dessa Rose – Trafalgar Studios, until 30 August 2014 (tickets)

At the start of a new musical there is often a frisson of excitement that doesn’t often occur with new plays; the rarity of a new book, and the possibility that you could be in the audience for the next Chicago, Cats or Sound of MusicDessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander,10 or, alternatively, Gone with the Wind or (fingers crossed) Carrie: The Musical seems to add a certain expectation to the evening.

As a result it is with something approaching disappointment that it must be reported that Dessa Rose proves itself to be an entirely functional musical, with performers and musicians’ skilfully executing what is, in the main, a rather humdrum book from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.

Whilst the production has a number of highlights it covers so much ground that you are pulled across decades as quickly as you are across musical styles. It is often not clear when or where you are, and this causes its central theme – that there is a bond between ‘women’ that can cut across the race and income divide of the prejudiced 18th century South – to never be satisfactorily addressed.

Ahrens and Flaherty have some form in producing surface-level musicals that work more as a Wikipedia summation of American history than as a complex emotionally engaging narrative. Ragtime, last seen in the summer of 2012 at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, was taken from E.L Doctorow’s novel, and was similarly fated to be rendered down into a deeply and problematically oversimplified tale of the oppressed masses instead of a complex view on America’s rich social-cultural history.

Musicals have taken a leading role in addressing racial prejudice and the experience of black people in America. Porgy and Bess is often held up as one of the greatest American musicals, The Scottsboro Boys finally emerged in the last couple of years as one of Kander & Ebb’s finest creations and, in the same year Ahrens & Flaherty produced Dessa Rose, The Colour Purple was also adapted for the stage.

Dessa Rose, Trafalgar Studios, Courtesy Scott Rylander,28These are not small shoes to fill and Dessa Rose, for all the heart of its performers, never comes close to filling them. There is nothing that comes close to matching Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So as musical numbers, it doesn’t have the natural, shocking wit of The Scottsboro Boys and the twin themes of racism and sexism are far more clearly articulated in The Colour Purple.

Dessa Rose is strongest when the performers and musicians are doing what they do best and the message gets forgotten about for a while. There is a tight-knit quality to the ensemble that suggests a strong rehearsal process and credit must go to Andrew Keates (Director) and Sam Spencer Lane (Choreographer) for some remarkably agile set-pieces on the tiny Trafalgar stage. It is not easy to work on a thrust stage with a cast of twelve but it is an impressively fluid production, and rarely do the actors get under each other’s feet.

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The Age of Innocence

Passing By – Tristan Bates Theatrebooking until 30 November 2013

The Tristan Bates Theatre, currently home to a revival of Martin Sherman’s Passing By, is a curiously anachronistic fixture in the West End. It is one of the few theatres in London that could possibly lay claim to that most American of terms – ‘off-Broadway’. Unlike the Arcola, the Southwark Playhouse and even the Almeida, the Tristan Bates Theatre is genuinely situated in the heart of the West End and surrounded by some of the biggest theatres in the country.

It also has a bracingly uncommercial sensibility that sets it apart from other non-traditional West End theatres; the Donmar Warehouse by way of comparision, barely two minutes away, can hardly lay claim to such a passing-by-photo-scott-rylanderperspective when the cheapest of their friend’s packages clocks in at £350. It is a theatre that feels, and attempts to be, dedicated to playwriting and acting. The black box space and the, presumably, limited budgets leads to a much reduced directorial hand and a focus on the play and performance. As a result the Tristan Bates is an ideal home for Sherman’s 1972 two-hander about two gay men coming together in 1970’s New York.

Passing By is play that rests on the naturalism of its dialogue and the interplay between the two lead characters. It has been quite a long time since I have seen a production that allows the play to seem so unencumbered; in part this is because the majority of the play is set in one location but credit must also go to Andrew Keates unfussy direction.

Intentionally or not Keates has managed to capture something of the uninhibited freedom of the golden age of American cinema; Robert Altman’s Nashville immediately springs to mind or perhaps more appropriately given its New York setting, the criminally underrated Klute. In these 1970’s films, as in Sherman’s play, the audience gets the sense that they are capturing snippets of a life, fading in and out of conversations whose intangibility only serves to reinforce the grounding in reality.

There are one or two scenes that are set outside of Toby’s apartment but Keates makes no real attempt to change the setting; a couple of seats and the whir and flicker of a projector is enough to take us into a cinema, a sideboard repositioned tells us that we are now in a wine-shop. These small touches allow the play to keep up its natural pace and the audience doesn’t get sidetracked by the immaterial.

That is not to say that the set is not worthy of mention. If anything it operates as a third actor; it is the most superb evocation of an apartment in the heart of 1970’s New York. Every element feels steeped in the period without running into pastiche. It is not just pleasing that this has been achieved, it is an essential element of bring the period to life as the naturalistic nature of the play dictates.

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