Teddy continues at the Southwark Playhouse, London until 27 June.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Tristan Bernays’ Teddy doesn’t quite defy definition – it’s a play, written in free verse, featuring original songs – but its lyrical, musical and beat-poetical theatricality is refreshing and innovative and wholly welcomed.
Teddy is set in the 1950s and located not too far from the Southwark Playhouse in the half-derelict streets around Walworth Road and Elephant and Castle. Interestingly, and I guess relevantly to today’s audience, it’s also set in a Britain struggling to come to terms with austerity, in this case post-war rather than post-crash. And like the teens of today too young to remember why the country’s in the state it is, the show’s protagonists, Teddy and Josie, find themselves figuratively and literally among the rubble of a Blitz from a previous generation.
The titular Teddy refers not just to our leading man but to the Edwardian-styled pop subculture that emerged after the war, and our heroes are two sharp-suited acolytes, Brylcreemed and ready for a weekend of ducking and diving. Theirs is the classic story of disaffected youth, recounted in a series of vignettes over one fateful evening as they pinball through the streets in search of distraction and, specifically, their hit-parade idol, Johnny Valentine. In Bernays’ electrifying free verse, the details of their eventful evening unfolds, accompanied by Valentine’s rockabilly soundtrack.
It’s effectively a two-hander, and in the lead roles are the utterly compelling Joseph Prowen and Jennifer Kirby. These two young actors throb with seemingly endless energy, sparking off each other and tackling the complex, contrapuntal verse with a cocky assuredness. Coming off their lips, the sarf London discourse at times sounds almost Shakespearean. Director Eleanor Rhode keeps them zipping around the stage with a nervous edginess, and they clearly relish Tom Jackson Greaves’ period choreography, with Prowen flinging Kirby around like a rag doll.
There is, however, a third character in the shape of the onstage band, Johnny Valentine & the Broken Hearts, played by the excellent Will Payne (Valentine) and his band of Harrison White (MD/piano/guitar), Alexander Bean (drums) and Alice Offley (bass). Dougal Irvine’s perfectly placed underscoring, and his original 1950s-inspired songs, add a richness and texture that could not have been achieved by using existing material. An easy option would have been to turn on the jukebox and find an appropriate hit, but by interweaving original songs into the drama, the result is a show greater than the sum of its parts.
The finishings are all pitch perfect, too, helping to instantly evoke the period and lend the show an almost filmic quality: Max Dorey’s static set is suitably shabby and beautifully lit by Christopher Nairne, and Holly Rose Henshaw kits out our ‘Elephant’ Bonnie and Clyde in what to my eyes is authentic 50s garb (Prowen’s dark-green, velvet-collared drape-coat suit is particularly sharp).
The plotting of this 90-minute one-act show could do with the merest of tightening up, but the combined effect of the music, the spirited dialogue and the physicality of the piece keeps you gripped. Get to your seat early because there’s a nice pre-show offering from the band, and you’re encouraged to hang around afterwards for a bit of boppin’ and hoppin’. The Southwark Playhouse has done it again, serving up an edgy, vibrant show that attempts, and succeeds, to do something a little bit out of the ordinary. Highly recommended.
* Readers may also be interested in:
Interview – Dougal Irvine, composer of Teddy at the Southwark Playhouse