The Mad Ones

Kait Kerrigan and Bree Lowdermilk
The Old Joint Stock Theatre
The Old Joint Stock Theatre

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Thea Jo Wolfe (Beverly), Ryan Bartholomew (Adam), Dora Gee (Samantha) and Safia Bartley (Kelly) Credit: Shipwreck Productions

As mainstream musicals get bigger and more expensive to stage, a new generation of small-scale, low budget musical theatre has emerged both here and in the US. Dear Evan Hansen started off-Broadway and Operation Mincemeat came up through our own fringe theatre scene.

The Mad Ones was originally called The Unauthorized Autobiography of Samantha Brown. The music was posted on Bandcamp in 2011, it was staged in Georgia under its original title in 2014 and then off-Broadway under its current title in 2017. This new production at Birmingham’s Old Joint Stock Theatre is the UK première.

The title comes from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in which he says, "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time."

The Mad Ones tells the story of 18-year-old Samantha Brown, played by Dora Gee, who is at a turning point in her life. She has just graduated from high school and her adult life lies ahead of her. Should she do what her mother, Beverly (Thea Jo Wolfe), wants and go to university, stay with her adoring boyfriend, Adam (Ryan Bartholomew), or drive off into an unknown future with her best friend Kelly (Safia Bartley)? As she sits at the car wheel, Sam’s life leading up to that point flashes before her.

In plot terms, that’s pretty much it. I don’t think it will spoil it for you if I say that Sam’s eventual decision is not the point. The show captures the existential angst of youth faced with a surfeit of possible identities and options. Sam can do anything she wants, which would be great if she knew what that was. And in the grand scheme of things, if the world is going to end anyway and we are all, ‘blurring into nothing’ then does it matter what you do?

The story is told in flashback. Kelly was killed by a car as she crossed the street, and Sam feels all the grief and guilt of the recently bereaved. The dramatic structure is a classic Freudian id vs. superego conflict. Kelly is Sam’s id, all appetite and to hell with the consequences, while her mother, Beverly, a statistician and road safety expert, is her superego urging caution. Sam and her ego somehow have to navigate a path between the two. Her boyfriend, Adam, is in there too, for people who like their musical theatre with a dash of heteronormativity, but this is very much a three-way drama between the principle female characters.

There are a few metatheatrical touches. At one point, Sam addresses the audience directly and Kelly asks her what she is doing. Sam says, "I’m contextualising" and Kelly replies, "for who? Me?" Elsewhere, Kelly complains at having to double in another role; it’s a nicely self-referential touch in this low budget, room-above-a-pub production.

The show is mostly sung-through. Kait Kerrigan is credited with both book and lyrics, but of the two roles I’d say she leans more into lyric writing. Having hit on the image of driving as a metaphor for life, she runs out of road with it (reviewers can do it too) so Sam has lines like, "It’s not like I have a map or anything," and Kelly sings, "Tear up the atlas, don’t read the road signs." Adam dreams of taking over his Dad’s garage, Kelly is run over by an SUV, Beverly pleads with Sam to slow down; you get the idea.

The first half has a pop song playlist feel to it. Bree Lowdermilk’s music is bouncy and fun and the show has a puppyish eagerness to please. The characters are generic types: Adam is every nerdy high school student from every American teen drama you have ever seen and Beverly is a caricature second wave feminist who proudly tells us that Sam was quoting extracts from The Second Sex at the age of six.

The second half gives the drama room to breathe, though, and it has an emotional depth which the first half lacks. Beverly has a terrific 11 o’clock number in “Miles To Go” in which she warns her daughter not to take her freedom for granted because, however far women have come in her lifetime, “We still have miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles and miles to go”.

The boyfriend, Adam, has been largely superfluous up to this point, but he gets a lovely ballad, “Run Away With Me”, in which he offers Sam the freedom she longed for with Kelly. The show ends on an empowering, feel the fear and do it anyway note. As Kelly says, "if you’re not scared, you’re not doing it right"—she tells Sam to just take the risk, pay the cost and drive.

The cast of four are absolutely fantastic, and the band of three musicians, musical director Callum Thompson plus guitar and violin, do a great job. Emily Susanne Lloyd’s direction and Ellie Begley’s choreography are fluid and effective, and Tom McVeigh’s car seat set is efficient and flexible.

The Old Joint Stock has a reputation for punching above its weight in musical theatre, and The Mad Ones maintains the high standard set by their previous shows.

Reviewer: Andrew Cowie

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