John & Jen continues at the Union Theatre, London until 17 September.
Star rating: three stars ★ ★ ★ ✩ ✩
Sibling rivalry and solidarity lie at the heart of John & Jen, a two-person musical with songs by Andrew Lippa and lyrics by Tom Greenwald, with a book by Lippa and Greenwald.
Starting with a six-year-old Jen welcoming her newborn brother John into the world (in ‘Welcome to the World’), the siblings grow up in a household overshadowed by a violent father.
As John, James Lacey is afforded the greater degree of character development, as his character progresses through various stages of childhood. It is a sensitively handled portrayal, effectively portraying his progression through the ages without needing the lyrics’ frequent mention of how old each sibling is in each song.
As the five-year-old John moves from looking forward to Christmas (despite his 11-year-old sister managing his expectations) to witnessing an argument with his parents, Lacey captures the confusion and psychological drama well.
On the other hand, Sharon Byatt’s Jen has far less to play with in Act I, her role as older sister and surrogate parent making it far harder to place her character’s age without the aforementioned lyrical hints.
An exception is when John is forced to attend his (now 16-year-old) sister’s netball game (‘Dear God’), which allows Byatt to actually act as a child for once.
While there’s an element of truth to this requirement of making Jen adult before her time, it does leave Act I feeling unbalanced in terms of demands on the actors and the audience’s connection with the characters. And so, when Jen finally decides to break away and move to New York – leaving behind the brother who, despite having been on the receiving end of their father’s violence, remains fiercely loyal. The wedge that is driven between the siblings remains as John enlists to fight in the Vietnam War, a conflict from which he is never to return.
Act II concentrates on Jen’s relationship with her son, also named John after her now-deceased brother. The spectre of domestic abuse remains, with Lacey’s John Jr unable to comprehend why he cannot see either his grandfather or his father (from whom Jen has separated due to his own violent behaviour).
The musical’s structure invites a sense of repetition here, as Lacey once again grows through childhood and Byatt seeks to protect him, this time as an actual parent rather than a surrogate.
And once again, the writers tend to focus their emotional connection on John, while Jen is portrayed as a emotionally damaged figure, unable to escape the demons of her failed relationships with husband, father and late brother.
The difficult relationship between mother and son is best expressed in ‘Talk Show’, in which each character takes turns to play the host of a TV confessional, interrogating the other as to their part in the failure of the relationship.
There’s a mix of broad comedy and sad truth to the whole sequence in the performances from both Lacey and Byatt that highlights the best of each performer and compensates for other numbers where neither singer is quite able to extract much in the way of emotional heft from the scenarios in each song, no matter how hard they are clearly trying.
The simple set and props (designed by Sean Gibbons) allow focus on the two performers, and the three-piece band led by musical director George Francis creates a sound that complements the singers’ voices while bringing out Lippa’s ear for melody nicely.
But as the characters reach an uneasy truce at the musical’s conclusion, there is a sense that this is a piece perhaps more to be enjoyed by the singers than the audience. Despite the actors’ best work, if there is a genuine emotional connection that can be made to Lippa and Greenwald’s work – and that’s a big ‘if’ – it’s missing here.