John & Jen at Southwark Playhouse
John & Jen deals with family relationships, from the big sister, Jen, who promises to protect her little brother John to several years later when Jen is now a single mother protecting her son, named in memory of her brother.
Whilst John & Jen was written in 1991 it feels as relevant today as it would have 30 years ago. The themes of abusive parents, war, single parenthood and grief are as predominant in todays society as they were when Greenwald and Lippa first conceived the piece and for that reason it still feels fresh and relevant. The timelines from the original story have been shifted forward and references of Zoom and other contemporary references help bring it up to date. The only issue with that is that in the original context some of the references would have worked more, especially the references to war and patriotism. Some of these felt a little out of place in a more contemporary setting.
Whilst big issues are dealt with in this musical the success of John and Jen is how relatable it is. The dynamic between brother and sister reminded me of my own little brother and the teasing combined with love and the parent/child relationship would have made everyone smile thinking back to their own teenage years. There were some points that caused me to question parts of the plot. I struggled to get my head around how John could want to follow in his fathers footsteps when his father was abusive and John himself begs Jen to take him away from there when she leaves for college. The show doesn’t delve deeply into bigger issues such as this and it is something that the audience simply have to accept.
John & Jen is nearly completely sung through and the music helps capture the characters portrayed brilliantly and captures the small moments in their lives which create a montage of just who they are. Some moments could be more nuanced, for example the passing of time whilst Jen is at college, but I can forgive this for the range of songs that John & Jen are both given, from comedy moments in ‘Talk Show,’ to hope in ‘Old Clothes.’
Rachel Tucker plays Jen and it was an utter joy to see her in an intimate venue like the Southwark Playhouse. During numbers such as ‘The Road Ends Here,’ we were treated to Tuckers incredible vocal belt, something that we all expect from her and of course resulted in a huge applause however for me it was the quieter moments in Tucker’s performance that helped me appreciate just how perfect for this part she was. She was able to quickly capture a childlike innocence towards the opening of the show and we saw this develop into a hurt and frustrated single mother in Act 2. She was able to portray so many stages of Jen’s life with apparent ease and captured a huge range of emotions, from comedy to grief whilst doing so.
Paired with Tucker was Lewis Cornay as John. Like Tucker Cornay captured a huge range of character growth however Corney also had to deliver 2 different characters, John the brother and John the son but ensure that the characters were similar enough for Jen to be reminded of her brother when looking after her son. Whilst the writing was clever enough to help make this an easier task for Cornay he undoubtedly delivered on this brief. His numbers such as ‘Bye Room’ were bursting with character and combined with his wonderful voice he is a performer I would love to watch again and again.
John & Jen is a musical that may have been best let in its original timeframe to help anchor these characters but despite that the variety of emotions, music and the ability of Tucker and Cornay need to be seen and the setting can easily be overlooked.
You can find out more about John & Jen and buy tickets on Southwark Playhouse’s website here. John & Jen is running until the 21st August.