The Mirror Never Lies
Book and lyrics by Joe Giuffre, music by Juan Iglesias, based on the novel "The Sweet Dove Died" by Barbara Pym
A blurry video of 1960s London (Trafalgar Square, Carnaby Street, Twiggy) accompanies the overture to set the scene for this musical adaptation of Barbara Pym’s book. It takes us to Sotheby’s where Leonora, an aging but elegant beauty, is raising her hand in a bid for an artwork when she faints with excitement, caught in the arms of antique dealer Humphrey and James, his attractive young nephew.
They go off to a teashop (as a caption identifies the next scene in this minimalist staging using just a few chairs) where, miming consumption of tea and cakes, the first number gives us what they think of each other. Humphrey lasciviously links Leonora’s erotic attractions with tasty pastries in one verse, followed by Leonora who doesn’t fancy him but the young man doing the same in another, while in a third verse James bored and confused by what’s going on gets his pleasure from the pastry.
That is really the whole piece in miniature. Love (or lust anyway) for people who love someone else or who move on, labels for location and stereotype characters, little real action and songs that are arias shared with the audience.
Francesca Ellis tells us more about her Leonora through her hairstyle, smart couture and clipped accent than does Joe Giuffre’s dialogue and the same goes for most of the other characters. The book is trimmed back to a plot outline and the song lyrics, though rich in rhyme and clever repetitions, lack deep dimension, except in the final title number which, though Ellis delivers it with passion, left me unsure of its meaning.
Juan Iglesias provides a score full of melody with a strong feel of the '60s, settings that allow clear vocal delivery and some transitions between scenes that could set feet dancing but often accompany darkness, but the only opportunity for dance in this production is a brief sophisticated tango for Leonora and Jon Osbaldeston’s Humphrey which matches their characters.
Ryan Frank as James and Jennifer Harraghy as Phoebe, a girl he meets at a university party and with whom he begins a brief affair, get little chance to be more than plot pawns except in their individual arias, especially James’s frustrated cry of “I need to break out, I need to break in!”
Spencer O’Brien as American academic Ned (whom in this version James meets sharing his cabin while sailing to New York) does gets a chance to firmly establish his character, however one-dimensional, in a number that expresses his predatory nature in which he makes provocative eye-contact with individual audience members as he tells them "I get all I want”—and that's not just things but people. It’s the strongest part of the show.
Of course Ned wants James, and he gets him. Leonora’s friend Meg (Darrie Gardner) seems there only to echo that part of the main plot. There is no indication of why this inelegant loser is part of her world, unless just as someone to look down on. She is in love with Colin (O’Brien again), who turns up for lunch with a new boyfriend (Greg Keith), then walks out on her, though at first he seems more like a son or a nephew.
This caustic picture of love, of unsuited affection and heartless rejection, which it suggests will be never-ending, sometimes seems to invite cynical laughter. It needs to reveal much more about its characters to make them people to care about. I haven’t a clue whether it is telling us (especially in its title number) to only trust ourselves or sardonically saying never believe what we see in the mirror? Or both? Perhaps that’s the point.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton