I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky

Music composed by John Adams, libretto and lyrics by June Jordan
Theatre Royal Stratford East in a co-production with Barbican
Theatre Royal, Stratford East

Production photo by Robert Day

John Adams is probably best known in Britain for his Nixon in China and the fuss over The Death of Klinghoffer and, like them, this show is set around an historic moment. In this case it is the Los Angeles earthquake of 1994 and the title is a quote from a survivor. Although described as a 'music theatre show' and the composer himself describes its twenty songs as being 'in pop mode' this is music very much with Adam's minimalist signature that places great demands up its singers.

The vocal lines may seem simple but they are not and while sometimes sung over a rippling ground the scoring can rise to powerful crescendos, be reduced to gentle phrases on a single instrument or even leave the singers unaccompanied. With this cast of singers drawn from different musical backgrounds it sounds splendid. Anna Mateo's slightly more operatic voice as Salvadoran refugee Consuela seems to rise effortlessly over the band and both Jason Denton's preacher man David and Leon Lopez as reformed gang leader Dewain bring a vibrant physicality but whether in ensemble or their individual numbers Stewart Charlesworth as Mike, an LA cop, Natasha J Barnes as a TV crime reporter Tiffany, Colin Ryan's lawyer Rick, child of Vietnamese boat people, and Cynthia Erivo's social worker Leila all deliver strong performances.

Since the show opens with title number and the set has lumps of concrete hanging from the flies on twisted steel one might assume the earthquake has already happened but in fact it comes as a theatre shaking moment in the second act. Despite a flown in cross (church), a steel door (prison ) and other temporary elements Adam Wiltshire's set gives little sense of location until after the earthquake.

A circle of red plastic chairs gradually assembled on the stage make the opening suggest an AA meeting, and they clutter up the stage thereafter, though sometimes cleverly manipulated to suggest, for instance, a court room witness box or earthquake debris. Video projections of abstract patterns at the start and for the actual earthquake sequence were a better match to this work than the realistic elements of the set and it would have been better served by a more abstraction.

The numbers could stand alone as comment on individual situations that reflect a whole range of issues from racism and police harassment to illegal immigration, birth control or simply preacher David's powerful attraction to Leila - as one song says 'It's a cultural thing'- it is some time before any kind of narrative emerges. The central story then becomes that of Dewain, arrested for stealing two bottles of beer on his way to visit girlfriend Consuela, Leila pitching in on is behalf while Tiffany backs up Mike and Rick appears in court as the lawyer defending him.

The production, by Kerry Michael and Matthew Xia, does not do much to elucidate this somewhat confusing hotchpotch, which even includes an apparent homophobe realising he may be gay but it does bring out some charismatic performances and they and the music make this revival very worth while.

Until 17th July 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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