After You continues at Live At Zédel, London until 22 April.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
The first musical commissioned by Piccadilly nightspot Zedel is a little gem of a two-hander, a love story with a sting in the tail, short and sweet at exactly an hour and site-specific too as the couple’s secret meetings take place at Crazy Coqs, so it doesn’t require a set, it’’s all there.
Written by childhood friends Alex Parker (music) and Katie Lam (lyrics and book) – they’ve known each other ever since they sat next to one another at school as eight-year-olds – there was barely a second of it I didn’t enjoy.
Yet After You’s two-week run got off to a bad start when Liam Doyle broke his collar bone in a fall in his home town of Coventry. Now he will have to do all 16 performances with his arm in a sling.
This likeable performer makes light of the inconvenience however. He’s Chris, a singer hoping his weekly Crazy Coqs gig will lead to bigger things – they do as he lands a big contract abroad – while Laura Tebbutt is Sarah, the corporate lawyer with a guilty secret who takes their relationship into deeper waters than she can handle.
Tebbutt sings quite beautifully and must be a joy to act with. Her soul-searching ‘See the World’,when she has to choose between career and romantic adventure, touches the heartstrings as does the title song – “After you I think I’ve been rewritten,” as sung by Doyle, is a particularly pleasing line.
‘Easy’, ‘The Voice Inside My Head’ and ‘Touch Me’ are three more examples that reflect the musicianship and scholarship of their creators.
Of the ten well-crafted songs the lovebirds get their teeth into, two – ‘London’, a homage to our great capital city, and ‘See the World’, about choices in life and whether to play it safe or gamble on happiness – are sung more than once.
Parker is more used to conducting orchestras –- he has been the moving force behind several one-off concert nights in London and Guildford, mainly showcasing the work of his beloved Stephen Sondheim — than writing bijou musicals.
He is a massively creative talent, a doer who wears his conducting hat elsewhere – he’s currently musical director on the Wonderland tour and musical supervisor for Working at Southwark – so couldn’t be there to see how his little baby was getting on.
He need not have worried: everything musical was in good hands. Lush strings via Katherine Waller (violin), Will Harvey (cello) and Rohit Nijhawan (guitar) under MD/pianist Isaac McCullough give delightful support to the two principals.
Parker’s regular collaborator Alastair Knights directs but needs to do something about sightlines.
Faces and expressions in the floor-level table scenes in front of the stage, notably the opening one where Chris’ foot-in-mouth chat-up lines addressed to his new admirer work more successfully than they deserve to, are lost on much of the audience, particularly those at the back of the room.
There are nods to famous two-handers of the past, notably Brief Encounter (“not brief enough”), and the up-in-the-air final scene evokes hope of a happy ending. We shall have to wait for After You II to find out what happens next!