The Writers’ Playground 2 was performed at the Union Theatre, London.
Star rating: 3 stars ****
Returning to the Union Theatre on Sunday after a successful debut in September, Fairground Theatre Company’s night of new musical theatre writing, The Writers’ Playground has reached the ‘difficult second gig’ stage that any ongoing series must face.
Created to be a semi-regular platform for new writing, Sunday’s edition opened with a reprise from September’s inaugural event, with composer Dan Looney showcasing three songs from two of his musicals. From The Confession Room, his song ‘Excalibur93’ was a poignant tale of a man who finds the confidence he lacks in real life through the persona he creates in an online role-playing game, while Mollie Melia-Redgrave demonstrated that comedy number ‘Ditsy Blonde’ should be a welcome addition to any actress’ cabaret repertoire. Closing with the title number from Swear My Love, his collaboration with Jake Brunger (whose The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole is shortly to open at Leicester’s Curve Theatre), Looney showed that he is capable of mixing pathos, romance and comedy in a single song – an ability which should stand him in good stead, albeit one which was readily apparent in September’s event.
Stepping in at short notice after composer Sophie Reid had to withdraw due to illness, Miracle Chance was a similarly returning name from the first Writers’ Playground, although here she was able to perform in person after a work absence in September. As with that event, though, her songs were perhaps the least aligned with the musical theatre genre, being a number of standalone folk-pop songs. Chance’s trilling soprano has the whimsical flightiness of Eliza Doolittle or an early Fiona Apple, and that’s no bad thing. While the downbeat tone of ‘The Sunbeam in Me’ and the attempts at a rockier sound with ‘Who’s Gonna Weigh Your Heart’ were perfectly fine, it was her opening number, the sunny ‘Brings You Back to Mine’, which stuck in the head, its summery pop vibe shining through the grey February evening light.
As well as these writers’ evenings FTC is running a long-term mentoring programme, Songs From the Playground, supporting one composer every 12 months. This year’s beneficiary, Rebecca Applin, showcased a much more serious style with ‘Do Not Linger’, from her Soho-based song cycle (written with lyricist Susannah Pearse). Dramatising the attempts of 19th century physician John Snow to locate the source of London’s cholera outbreak, the song’s combination of an emotive lyrical line with recitation of the outbreak’s many victims made for a resonant number. Applin’s two other numbers were less successful – both comedy number ‘Steam’, about two postmistresses who sneak open their fellow villagers’ mail, and ‘That’s Not Who We Are’, from an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, feel like they are not quite engaging with either their subject or the audience. Hopefully, her year with FTC will help her work develop further.
Composer Tim Gilvin presented a couple of songs from his musical set in the recording industry, Kate and the Devil. The more successful of these was the duet ‘Ghosts’, as a couple realise they have grown apart to the extent that neither is engaging with the other. ‘A Bigger Smile’, a solo number for one of the musical’s supporting characters, was a ballad of yearning for something more that struggled to escape its list-based nature, despite a sweet performance by Kate Hume. From Gilvin’s one-act musical for a solo performer, Stay Awake, Jake, Alex Pritchett tackled ‘How About Tomorrow?’ well, recalling the progression of a relationship from first flush to last goodbye. Of all the performers of the evening, Gilvin’s segment certainly felt the most interesting and intriguing.
Jack Williams and Freya Catrin Smith’s Part A, a song cycle set within a house party, was showcased with another good musical comedy number, as Elle Daniel performed ‘Drunk Dial’. The all-too-familiar desire for retribution, combined with alcohol’s ability to lower both inhibitions and cognitive function, came across well. Sophie Giles coped well with the slower, more romantic ‘A Way to Love You’, but a further attempt at humour with a trio singing ’First World Problems’ lacked enough lyrical finesse to lift it above anything other than a hashtag-turned-extended joke.
As if waving the red rag of moderate success in the face of the bullish new composers, final act Dougal Irvine is certainly further along the path to critical and commercial success than many composers. His three songs presented a selection of his past and future work, starting with the haunting ‘Silence and the Rain’, before launching into one of the more unusual songs of the night. ‘The Tale of the Rat’, from Irvine’s forthcoming Busker’s Opera, was an allegorical tale of a rodent who starts consuming a town’s waste, growing in size until it starts to dwarf everything else. The grotesque fairytale was one third Roald Dahl, one third Hans Christian Andersen, and one third anti-consumerist fable, and none the worse for the that. However, it felt appropriate that he should end on a more conventional number, with ‘Left Spain’ from his internationally successful Departure Lounge.
With a mixed bag of performers and maybe a little bit too much repetition from last September’s first evening, it feels like The Writers’ Playground has yet to find its own sense of identity. With more events planned for 2015, it may well be that an increased number of shows will help the event find its feet. As it is, while it is far from where it needs to be in terms of variety and technical accomplishment, it is clearly an event to keep an eye on.