Closer Than Ever continues at The Pheasantry, London until 27 April, as part of the London Festival of Cabaret.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
Clever, witty, regretful, searingly honest… 23 catchy songs and not a dud among them from the renowned American team of Richard Maltby Jr and David Shire, slickly performed by four first-class young Brits who should all be better known than they are.
There won’t be many better evenings in the London Festival of Cabaret fortnight.
Take a bow, Wendy Carr, Emily Chesterton, Richard Carson and Nicholas Corre. To my eternal shame, I’d never heard of any of you while noting Carson (who I am reliably informed is ‘a hunk’) has just finished a year as a GI in Miss Saigon and first cover for Broadway star Chris Peluso.
This is a more mature Maltby and Shire with consistently better material than their earlier Starting Here, Starting Now, the companion piece that Neil Eckersley’s team produced at the renowned Chelsea cabaret room last week.
Closer Than Ever first saw the light of day Off-Broadway for 312 performances at the end of the 1980s and resurfaced at Piccadilly’s Jermyn Street Theatre in 2014 with a cast comprising Issy Van Randwick, Sophie-Louise Dann, Graham Bickley and Arvid Larsen.
Here we have a younger team –- maybe a little too young for these songs of experience, failed and stale marriages, lessons learned (or not) and the shock of getting older (‘I never knew what a prostate was’) and getting sex only once a week (or not: ‘I’d have killed for once a week!’).
For sure, the full-house audience needed to use its imagination to believe Carson when he sang of being 44, but it scarcely mattered as these gifted team players soon had us all onside.
Although the show has a New York feel to it, the situations so shrewdly observed by the authors from their own circle of friends and spouses (and brought up to date in some cases with mobiles and contemporary references) are universal.
Carr takes charge of the painful ballads like ‘Life Story’ where she wishes, in retrospect, she’d stuck with her husband, rather than try to bring up their child alone amid a string of unsuitable lovers and money worries with the bitter-sweet, recurring punchline ‘but I’m not complaining’.
Thrilling work on piano by musical director Nick Barstow adds to the beauty of a most moving song.
‘Patterns’ and ’The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole’ also show off Carr’s crystal-clear soprano to best effect, while Chesterton, the other female in this energetic line-up, is handed the naughtier songs, often in company with the strong-voiced Corre, who has just finished as Harold in Bar Mitzvah Boy at the Gatehouse.
Chesterton’s treatment of ‘Miss Byrd’, the bespectacled spinster who is exactly the opposite to her prim exterior, is a delight. She is a very funny lady indeed, her acting skills also coming to the fore on another comic gem ‘There’ in which MD Barstow gets the chance to air his vocal cords and ‘Back to Base’ which gets bass player Doug Weekes in on the fun.
Carson’s simply-delivered ‘One of the Good Guys’’ is one more highlight – he has a languid humour that fits his material perfectly and is a member of the less-is-more school that makes him a pleasure to watch and listen to.
All four work wonderfully well together in the optimistic show opener ‘Doors’ and the showstopping ‘The March of Time’ when they finally come to realise their best years have probably been and gone and the rest of the journey is downhill.
It’s all snapshots rather than storyline but a greater connection between the songs is sensed than in the more random Starting Here where the funny songs like ‘Crossword Puzzle’ and ‘I Am Going to Make You Beautiful’ stood out and the ballads were weaker and less memorable.
Only at The Pheasantry for three nights, this smart, well-drilled show and these immediately likeable actor-singers would hold their own in any company. Closer Than Ever deserves a longer life.
Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Richard Carson on his role in Closer Than Ever at The Pheasantry