Wasted at The Southwark Playhouse

Wasted at Southwark Playhouse

From someone who knew the bare minimum about the Brontë sisters, other than they lived, wrote brilliant books, and obviously had incredible genes – I didn’t quite know what to expect of Wasted, a rock musical depicting their lives. And the life of their brother Branwell, of course.

Composer Christopher Ash, and writer Carl Miller, have clearly worked very hard to toe the line between historical accuracy, and an arty, fun take on their lives in this new musical. A thrust stage, an intimate theatre, and a plain wooden floor, certainly set the atmosphere well enough. Just 4 Brontës, 4 microphones plugged into the middle of the stage, and a live band at the back. A very minimal set, which continued throughout the show, with a slight extension of the stage, in which stairs either side of the band led to two small platforms.

Wasted

Photos by Helen Maybanks

The stripped back set worked brilliantly for them, and I cannot fault the staging. Clearly, due to very creative direction by Adam Lenson, the intimacy of the space was fully used to their advantage. The subtle physical theatre was expertly done, and truly added to the piece, rather than just physical theatre for the sake of physical theatre. With only the four actors on stage throughout, and quite a lengthy show, one might worry that lack of interesting staging would be an issue. It was never.

My one caveat to this praise was the view from the right-hand seats. Just occasionally, yet in very important moments, their view of the actor’s expressions and action was lost. I couldn’t help but feel for the lost side, doomed to watch the actors backs throughout a pivotal, and touching scene. I know thrust staging can have this issue, but it did happen time and time again, a character would deliver, it seemed, all their emotional moments to the left-hand seating.

The talent from the whole cast was on a fantastic level, so it speaks volumes that Emily Brontë, played by Siobhan Athwal, and Charlotte Brontë, played by Natasha Barnes, stood out from the four as fantastic vocalists, with excellent comedic timing. The range of each, vocally and in genre, was just astounding.

Barnes, a fantastic, genuinely believable actress, sold her part from the first line, and was a perfect casting for Charlotte. She found humour in the text, and effortlessly delivered it, whilst making us care about her character from the off. Her emotional range is stunning, and I fear some moments I wouldn’t have found moving if it weren’t for Barnes’ subtle, and genuine acting.

Physically, Althwal stole the show. Her robotic, stilted movements made her character beautifully three-dimensional, and she never dropped character for a moment. She flips from humorous, to devastatingly unhinged in seconds, and pulls you along with her. I just couldn’t take my eyes off her.

Anne Brontë, played by Molly Lynch, came into her own, vocally, late in the second act where she was allowed an extension of her range, showing her effortless Soprano tones. The harmonies, in particular the beautiful high notes by Lynch in the second act are sublime, a real joy to listen to. It made me wish for more of her singing in that genre for the first act, as opposed to her rocky style singing. Her voice is good, and she is well cast as the more innocent of the sisters, but it does mean her character flips oddly during rock songs between an innocent Christian, and someone who could actually be singing rock.

Branwell Brontë, played by Matthew Jacobs Morgan, was used well in this production. A nice voice, and sold his character with humour, as slightly useless, but entitled (because of his gender in the 1800s). “Branwell Bronte – who knew he had sisters?”  – a favourite line of his, delivered brilliantly.

WastedThe humour of the script throughout the whole show was clever, and laugh out loud funny. They often broke the 4th wall, as if telling tales on their siblings to the audience, and it never failed to produce a laugh.

Some of the choreography, for example in London, was expertly simple, yet effective. Subtle hints to the era, and the parties of the time, were used in this fab number. Actually the whole number, from the choreography, the band’s genre changes mid-song, to the excellent pairing of vocals and harmonies, made it just a delight – one of my favourites!

I must note, it was so refreshing to see two female fronts for the band, on lead acoustic guitar/electric guitar/ukulele, and bass. I thought it just myself that found it refreshing, until I heard it remarked upon by those around me also! They were backed by two men on drums/beatboxing/dog barking (I know, but it was brilliant), and keyboards (plural indeed!).

The band, for me, were faultless. Absolutely flawless. You only noticed they were there every once in a while, which is a testament to them sounding as neat and put together as a record. Considering they each spanned a number of genres and instruments, switching flawlessly between them all, they were one of the highlights of the show.

Now for a small harshness.

The opening number was the only time the band sung, and they were decidedly pitchy. Even after being taken over by the 4 cast members, the number lacked diction, and was filled with exposition, so diction was really crucial. In fact, the opening of Act 2 was filled with exposition also – unnecessary, as we had just seen the first act.

The diction was a big problem for me on multiple songs, there were almost whole songs missed because of ‘rock’ diction. Almost any other genre they tried worked better, simply because you could hear the lyrics, which in this largely sung through show, was very necessary. The exception to which being the absolute anthem (Extra) Ordinary Woman – what a voice from Barnes! This rock song was a crowd favourite, and in a star-studded audience, even Ronnie Wood whooped and cheered after that one. You could hear the lyrics, because they weren’t too overly complicated for a rock song, and it went across beautifully.

Throughout the show, Charlotte talks to someone the audience can’t see, and answers their questions. A few times I felt this could have been done better, as quite often she had to repeat the question before answering for the sake of the audience, which felt unnatural to do – as if she couldn’t hear them properly. We never found out who she was talking to.

Some songs went into rock unnecessarily, started beautifully and with subtle emotions and then the pace changed for no reason which was jarring, it was done much better when the characters had anger to vent through the songs. Although I praise the adding of other genres to twist the rock songs where needed. Adding the folky element in Charlotte’s song about the sea was subtle and beautiful.

With 14 songs in Act 1, and 13 songs in Act 2, it was a long show. I feel there could have been some editing in regards to length of songs, or perhaps even songs cut, where they add nothing other than rock for the sake of rock. Though this improved in the 2nd Act, both halves needed editing, in my opinion. In particular The Story of Mrs Collins, a display of rock style vocals, with a complete divergence from the story, which is never mentioned again. It was style over content, for me, and I didn’t really understand it, or believe it.

Everybody Dies, was an odd one too, it works by the end, but needed to get there faster as screaming ‘Why make art – everybody dies’ at the audience can get old quickly.

Likewise, their plot tool could have been used more effectively. They jump the plot forward, set the scene, then explore the scene. A brilliant way of combating the historical accuracy, I thought, by focusing on the feelings of the characters in each scenario, rather than having an intricate yet inaccurate plot. However, because of the sheer volume of songs, each scene became too long. On paper the plot went far, but it felt like it went nowhere.

The clever use of props saw Branwell using a different coloured mic lead as a physical metaphor for ecstasy. He walks on holding it, and his sister tries to take it away, he plugs it in and uses it for his song, which I thought was very clever, but after speaking to others, if you didn’t know he had a drug problem, it is never actually explained, so the whole song was lost for some audience members.

Other characters are briefly played by members of the same cast, which is done brilliantly for the most part. Athwal flips beautifully, both vocally and physically, to embody a separate character, which she does twice for the Poet Laureate (a superbly written rap/song) and a publisher. She does this with excellent humour, and an astounding watchability. Lynch does it once, but her lack of diction lost what I think was a brilliant comedy moment.

Finally, the end song, Wasted, was very odd tonally. After a beautiful moment near the end had the whole audience nearly in tears, feeling contemplative of life with all its mysteries and wonder –  we were to be abruptly brought down by a song that felt slightly forced and ‘arty’. I was feeling so euphoric during the earlier beautiful, 4th-wall-breaking moment, that if the show had ended there, I might have given a standing ovation. But it didn’t. Alas.

Wasted was very well written with lots of comedy, but unfortunately just too many songs, and an odd tone that often jolted the audience into detachment. The brilliantly talented cast made up for a lot of what was missing, but I still left the theatre slightly unsatisfied.

I shall leave you now in the words of the ever-feisty Charlotte Bronte –  ‘F*** off, I’m writing Jane Eyre!’

Review by Mims Melville

For tickets and information about Wasted visit their website.

If you like this review you might also like my review of Six, Knights of the Rose and Eugenius.

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