Bloody Elle: A Gig Musical

Lauryn Redding
Royal Exchange Theatre in association with Rebel Productions
Royal Exchange Theatre

Elle - Lauryn Redding Credit: Pippa Rankin
Elle - Lauryn Redding Credit: Pippa Rankin
Elle - Lauryn Redding Credit: Pippa Rankin
Elle - Lauryn Redding Credit: Pippa Rankin
Elle - Lauryn Redding Credit: Pippa Rankin

Like the Octagon, the Royal Exchange has reopened its main stage with a new solo piece—which perhaps makes 'distancing' a bit easier on stage and in the rehearsal room—but rather than a gentle warm-up, this is a full-length musical created entirely by its star, who has written and performs all of the words and the music. Tickets have been sold with just one empty seat between each person or group; from looking around, it seemed to me that every seat was occupied that could have been on all three levels.

The show is billed as a 'gig musical', which is reflected in Amanda Stoodley's simple design through an arrangement of platforms and microphone stands with a few of the audience sat around pub tables amongst them.

Lauryn Redding is a familiar face to theatregoers in the region, but as far as I know she hasn't appeared at the Exchange before, though you wouldn't know this from the confidence with which she owns this stage for two and a half hours—no easy task for even the most experienced performer.

Redding as the Elle of the title opens with a prologue song about not doing a prologue before launching into her intense love story from ten years earlier set mostly in the high-rise flat (Cloud Rise) where she lives with her mum and brother and the café where she works, Chips 'N' Dips. The arrival of a seemingly out-of-place newcomer on the staff forces Elle to confront ingrained views on class and sexuality—her own and other people's—in order to find a happiness that is destined to be short-lived.

The newcomer is Eve from London, the daughter of 'a family of doctors' and destined to be one herself, passing time before going to study at Oxford. Eve is a bit of a fish out of water, but then so is Elle when she goes to Eve's house, where they have several cars and a horse and each room is bigger than Elle's flat, and she starts to have feelings for Eve that have only ever been described in derogatory terms by most of the people where she grew up.

Elle performs gigs at her local pub, and so the songs, performed by Redding on vocals and guitar using live-looping, are sometimes part of the story like a musical and sometimes part of Elle's performance, but they are often a bit of both. The spoken parts come across like natural speech, but there is a rhythm and some subtle rhyming that reminded me a bit of Kae Tempest but without ever drifting off into mythology or dense lyricism, always remaining down-to-earth and immediate. As Elle tells her story, she also becomes all of the characters in it, including her mum, all the guys and girls at work and, of course, Eve.

Redding is a compelling storyteller, and she holds the audience with a story that never lets the pace lapse throughout a long first act before she cheekily introduces an interval at a cliffhanger moment. There are perhaps a couple of lulls in the second half—aren't there always?—but the whole piece, directed by Joint Artistic Director Bryony Shanahan, is impressively slick.

This extends to the technical design as well. Mark Distin Webster's lighting is subtle but effective, while the sound design from Alexandra Faye Braithwaite is crystal clear throughout, even when there is dialogue over looped music, a technique that is used often and very effectively.

This is a tour-de-force performance from a talented actor-writer-singer-musician—the songs are great as well; the script is available from the theatre, but no cast recording yet I don't think—who vividly creates a collection of characters with whom I was happy to spend a couple of hours and whose company I didn't want to leave at the end. I suspect the press night isn't the only performance that ends with cheers and a standing ovation during this run.

Reviewer: David Chadderton