Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Hostage Song

Book by Clay McLeod Chapman, music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow
Palefire
Finborough Theatre

Pierce Reid as Frontman and Verity Marshall as Jennifer Credit: Katie Pillidge
Michael Matus as Jim Credit: Katie Pillidge

Two hostages, a man and a woman, are led in, blindfolded and wrists tied in front of them, and thrown down on the floor. Their clothes and their skin are filthy and bloodstained.

This isn’t exactly a feel-good, go-home-happy musical having its European première here. It seeks to take you into the minds of the captives and explore what that situation is like but, though it doesn’t flinch at the worst possible, it is not naturalistic.

Verity Marshall plays the woman, Jennifer, and Michael Matus is Jim, the male prisoner. They give impressive performances despite being deprived of the use of their eyes, a major tool for the actor, and their concentration survives even having to scrabble over the floor to find a microphone.

Scenes do not appear to be chronological. At first, ironically, we find the two of them using a game of I Spy to help keep their sanity and we move through memories of life with family and imagined encounters, sometimes shared with each other, as well as what is happening to them in their captivity.

There is an indication of a growing trust and dependence between them: Jim manages to dip a cloth in a water bucket (or is it for latrine use) and wipe caked blood from Jennifer’s face (not hers but another’s). What is really going on? They don’t know their fate but are they, in effect, putting their lives into order, in their heads sorting out unfinished business? At one point, dragged out individually, they are thrown back, presumably after interrogation, beating or torture, but now in red overalls of uncertain significance.

Jennifer’s father broadcasts an appeal to their captors that she seems to be able to hear. Jim talks with his wife or his son. Together they all act out an imagined scene where Jim is introduced to Jennifer’s parents as the new boyfriend. At the same time there are interjections that seem to be real scenes where relations react to the situation and moments when they break into song.

Matthew Hebden plays the father, Maria Teresa Creasey Jennifer’s mother and Jim’s wife. They both at times become captors. Pierce Reid is Frontman to the band sometimes leaning in to join the actors in a number. He sparkling eyes are lithe body full of animation but his words rarely comprehensible.

As so often in musicals, the songs, I presume, are an opportunity to express emotion or reflect on a situation to comment but, though they often start with a few notes of melody, the score here is heavy rock with two electric guitars, keyboard and wooden box percussion and turn into a barrage of sound with little lyric comprehensible. I’ve no real idea what they were about.

Ear-drum assailing indie-rock is not my choice of music, especially when amplified to disco level in a domestic scale environment, but at least one lady in front of me was moving to the beat and apparently loving it, though I don’t k now how much she took in of the content.

I confess my heart sinks whenever I see an actor pick up a microphone as a song starts. I like to see actors address themselves to the characters to whom they are talking or to me, as audience, not a hand-held black phallus. Fumbling on the floor to find one or pulling on one of the cables snaking across the stage to retrieve a mic or having a sighted character place it in their hands, together with a change of lighting state, puts the music in a different dimension. If it was offering a Brechtian commentary perhaps an acoustic set unamplified might have done the job better.

Pierce Reid also joins the action as Jim’s son, a cameo study of the effects of the situation on a teenager getting his kicks from lesbian porn and obsessed by the video of his own father’s execution. That execution is calmly described in stomach churning detail by the victim himself. Matus does it consummately with admirably restraint.

James Veitch’s production is played on the set of the play with which it is in repertoire to which designer Philip Lindley has added a dusty floor sheet and a battered filing cabinet tipped on its side. It has a minimalist concentration that helps it hold for its 75 minutes but it might have been even more effective without any of its music.

Hostage Song plays only on Sunday and Monday evenings and Tuesday matinées.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton