Before After was performed at the St James Studio Theatre, London.
For budding writers of new musical theatre there always comes a time in the process when the next step in development is to put the piece in front of an audience – to gauge their reaction and to invite (hopefully) constructive feedback before taking the project to the next stage. The St James Studio has become something of a regular venue for these showcases with rehearsed readings scheduled alongside an excellent line-up of cabaret, comedy, music and theatre.
The latest of these is Before After, with music and lyrics by Stuart Matthew Price – also well-known for his roles in Parade (Donmar Warehouse), The Sound of Music (Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre), Shrek the Musical (Theatre Royal Drury Lane) and The Rocky Horror Show (which he will returning to in Europe this autumn) – and a book and additional lyrics by playwright, lyricist and children’s writer Timothy Knapman.
They are aided and abetted by a small but wonderfully talented creative team in the shape of director Simon Greiff (who does so much to encourage new writing through SimG Records and Productions) and first-class performers Hadley Fraser (soon to appear as Stine in City of Angels at the Donmar Warehouse) and Caroline Sheen.
At the beginning of the piece we see Ami (Sheen) meet Ben (Fraser) by a tree on a beautiful hillside, a place that obviously held a special place in their hearts when they were once very much in love. She immediately recognises him, but he seems to have no recollection of their history together.
We soon discover that Ben, having been involved in a serious car accident, struggles with remembering very much of his previous life. So will the spark between the couple be rekindled and will their love get a second chance?
In what turns out to be a cleverly constructed libretto (rather reminiscent of the themes in Merrily We Roll Along or An Affair to Remember), scenes flick between the past and present as the audience views the stages of their relationship from different perspectives. This often works very well as we see artist Ben create a painting inspired by a distant memory (‘After’), one that we then see played out in flashback (‘Before’).
The two timelines allow us to engage with the characters on different levels – sharing Ami’s concern about when to tell Ben the truth, willing Ben to remember past adventures.
It would be easy to overdo the toing and froing between the Before and After, but these transitions are pretty smooth, and are helped by two incredibly strong performances from Fraser and Sheen. In addition to the intense and sizzling chemistry at work, their excellent acting helps to define the characters perfectly. One can tell whether Fraser is portraying the spontaneous, slightly cocky Ben that existed before the accident, or the rather more cautious man who has lost his confidence as a result of the trauma he has experienced.
If a little ballad heavy in favour of Ami’s character, there is much to savour in the score, not least in compositions like ‘Coming Back’, ‘Up Here’ and ‘As Long As You’re There’ (the real goosebump moment of the show). Plus there’s plenty of comedy too and Fraser’s performance of the brilliant ‘For the First Time’, with Ben facing his fear of the ‘c’ word (‘commitment’), is a definite highlight.
Aspects of the book that deal with Ami’s relationship with her father, and the twist towards the end when the audience starts believing she is having an affair, may need some rewriting. And it is hard to believe that there would be no one in Ben’s life who wouldn’t have recognised Ami from the past. But these are not major flaws in what is very much a work in progress.
Ultimately, though, to have showcased this contemporary love story so effectively without the conventional extras of set, costume and scenery is a great achievement. Credit must also go to a group of fine musicians led by musical director and orchestrator Stephen Ridley.
Ben and Ami struggle with all the fears and insecurities many of us experience on the rocky road of relationships, and we identify with them as a result. I do hope this intimate musical continues to blossom and finds it way to a full production in the not too distant future.
The showcase of Before After was sponsored by the Arts Council England and produced by United Theatrical (founded by Stuart Matthew Price and James Yeoburn.