Pages: Promised Land

Alex Constantine, Ali Muriel, Hannah Patterson and Rachel Welch
Union Theatre and MokitaGrit Productions
Union Theatre, Southwark
(2009)

Production photo

I have a confession to make: I hate musical theatre. Whether it's the tiniest flutter of jazz hands or the whinging smile worn by performers caught in a post-showstopper pant, most aspects of the song-and-dance set make me itch all over. Thanks to the Union Theatre and MokitaGrit Productions, however, I may just have found my antidote. Pages: Promised Land marries music, movement and narrative in a mostly delightful evening that will inspire even non-believers to embrace their inner Fosse.

In an impressive feat of collaboration, this production brings together five writers, three directors, two composers and a cast of fifteen to deconstruct how life in the fast lane may well be paved with unfulfilling intentions. Playwrights Alex Constantine, Rachel Welch, Ali Muriel and Hannah Patterson offer their respective takes on the elusory nature of inner satisfaction via four vignettes.

In Work, Constantine skewers the rat race through a number crunching anti-hero and his power-hungry co-workers while Welch's Poppy's Promise follows an infatuation junky and her bookish best bud as they troll for love in all the wrong places (think married men and boys who like boys). Act two kicks off with Muriel's An Ounce of Blood which details the oh-so shallow trials of talentless, pseudo-celebrity Kimberly Wright (somewhere, Katie Price is cringing) and her parochial relations. The show's final installation, Patterson's Invincible Summer, finds its main character, Ben, mid-meltdown in the face of his father's impending death and the unfathomable legacy it entails.

Taken on their own, these stories certainly don't set the stage on fire; journeys of self-reflexivity resulting in an ultimate break from conformity are well-mined theatrical territory (from Everyman to Shirley Valentine) not groundbreaking material. Problems arise too as the second act vignettes never fully reach their potential.

While the initially engaging motifs presented in Patterson's Invincible Summer are ultimately unrealized, Muriel's An Ounce of Blood traffics in well-worn clichés of celebrity culture (country bumpkin relatives, a money hungry agent etc.) without offering any new insight. Moreover, lines like "I am friendly with my friends but with my patients I'm merely patient", demonstrate An Ounce of Blood's dire need for a strong dramaturg. (One wonders why the concept director, Joe Fredericks, paradoxically chose to save the smartest vignettes for first, resulting in a rather droopy second act.)

Most can be forgiven, however, thanks to the energy, commitment and remarkable talent of the bright young artists involved. Joe Fredericks and Sean Green deserve credit for a gorgeous score, executed to near perfection by an amazingly musically adept ensemble. (Despite one particularly angst-ridden, candle-lit ballad, Pages's melodies inspired even this song-and-dance curmudgeon to hum a phrase or two on the post-theatre jaunt.) Directors Hannah Eidinow, Emily Agnew and Joe Fredericks and choreographer Tim Jackson also merit a nod; faced with the small-space-large-ensemble conundrum they come out on top via clean staging and, in Jackson's case, some cheeky, fresh dance sequences.

For the most part, the performers also shine. Steve Clarke and Gemma Sutton have scandalous fun as capitalist bottom-feeders in Work while Alexandra Mae, Katie Lavelli, Russell Morton and Nicholas Osmond endow Poppy's Promise with humour and pathos. Joanna Woodward's take on the über-narcissistic Kimberley hits comedic high notes as she spouts quotes from her deliciously self-indulgent "autobiography" (penned, of course, by a ghost writer). In his rendering of Invincible Summer's Ben, James Alper also delivers; clearly this role could veer towards affectation but Alper brings believability to the character's dilemma.

Unfortunately, in the lead role of George, Morgan James struggles. It's worth noting, however, that this actor is saddled with an extremely difficult task; George plays Agony Uncle to the characters in each vignette, thus serving as Pages's narrative glue. Granted that floating in and out of scenes in a series of limited interactions is challenging, James doesn't find the truth in what little he's given. Instead, his performance is emotive and over-earnest while his singing also disappoints.

Despite the fact that Pages isn't perfect (often trading in tired thematics such as "dreams deferred" and offering a dénouement that most would predict from the outset), it's earned this critic's hard-won vote. The excitement born of watching these talented, young performers give it their all is worth enduring a few theatrical bumps. Moreover, if Pages: Promised Land can sway this musically dysfunctional soul, it may just have the potential to touch even the most skeptical among us.

Playing until 7th November

Reviewer: Melissa Poll