Floyd Collins

Book by Tina Landau ,Music and Lyrics by Adam Guettel, additional lyrics by Tina Landau
Peter Huntley Productions in association with Southwark Playhouse and Tim Johanson Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Vlac Ashton, Gareth Carter (Homer), Dayle Hodge, Jonathan Redfrern, Robyn North (Nellie), Mensah Bediako (Ed), Glenn Carter (Floyd), Kit Benjamin (Carmichael), Donald Preston, Morgtan Deare (Lee Collins) and Jame Webster (Miss Jane). Credit: Robert Workman
Glenn Carter as Floyd Collins Credit: Robert Workman

This is a musical based on the real life story of Floyd Collins whose family ran the Crystal Cave as a tourist attraction in a depressed part of Kentucky.

Floyd, an inveterate caver since boyhood, had discovered that cave in 1917 and went on exploring. On 29 January 1925, he was alone underground and, he claimed, had discovered a new large chamber when his lamp was getting low and he had to turn back. In a narrow tunnel he knocked the lamp over and he was not only left in the dark but his movement dislodged a rock from above which was wedged in a way that could not be moved, trapping his leg so that he was stuck there.

For 18 days he was trapped while rescue attempts attracted a media circus and gained nationwide attention. With the main character stuck immoveable in a narrow passage 17 metres below ground it hardly sounds promising material for a musical, especially since the rescue was a failure, a new shaft dug to reach him came too late. Yet Landau and Guettel made from it a piece full of drama, packed with emotion and musical riches.

First staged at the American Music Theater Festival in New York in 1994, it was seen in Britain at the Bridewell in 1999. This revival, imaginatively directed by Derek Bond, is an opportunity not to be missed to catch an exciting piece of music theatre. Its rich, almost operatic score with a hint of country to give it a Kentucky flavour is admirably played by a band with violins, viola, cello and bass fiddle, plus guitar banjo and harmonica and thumpingly good percussion as well as MD Tim Jackson on keyboards and it is excellently cast with strong voices. Their accents are perhaps a trifle too authentic for English ears unused to the accent to catch all the lyrics, but, with performances so effective and a production so full of feeling to reinforce meaning, that was no problem.

After an introductory chorus for the whole company, Glenn Carter as Floyd has an amazing extended solo as he makes his way through the cave system. Moving through the levels and ladders of designer James Perkins's fantastic set, beautifully and subtly lit by Sally Ferguson so that actors become part of the rock face, and you could not have a more appropriate venue than here in Southwark Playhouse's Vault. This is a bravura beginning and Carter sustains it both dramatically and vocally. We feel him squeezing through narrow spaces, sense the opening up of spaces as the music provides fugue-like echoes from the depths of the caverns and the darkness of the Vault's tunnels. "If I follow that sound I can find what I'm looking for" he sings, convinced he's "gonna find my treasure underground". It is a performance of considerable stamina, for he is stuck under his rock fall almost throughout, but he is matched by his fellow performers.

There are Jane Webster and Morgan Deare (as Miss Jane and Floyd's religious-minded father) who have a delightful romantic duet about family, and Robyn North as Floyd's sister Nellie with her dream of the life his discoveries could bring and who wants to go down there and get him out herself. Gareth Chart is Floyd's younger brother Homer, who dreams of owning a Ford Model T, first down to find him but too big to crawl through to him. It is local newspaperman "Skeets" Miller, who confides he really wanted to be a baritone opera singer, who is small enough to reach him and who gives the world his story: that is another strong performance from Ryan Sampson, brimming with eagerness to get back down there when rescue supervisor Carmichael (Kit Benjamin) refuses to let anyone else down and starts digging a rescue shaft.

With a Hollywood director wanting Homer for the movies, more pressmen gathering and merchandisers arriving bringing illicit moonshine there is plenty going on above ground but down below Floyd is dreaming and things break out into an upbeat fantasy as he and Nellie take a ride in Homer's Model T. It is an escapist dream but that helps things end on a celebratory note though you can't help remembering (and the costumes remind you) that this is a society that within months would be facing the Wall Street Crash, the Depression and Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Not really the happiest future but you won't worry about contemporary financial problems while watching this show for it is totally engrossing, dramatically effective and wonderful music.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton