Pros: Some good comic songs and strong performances from both actors.
Cons: Offers neither memorable tunes nor penetrating insights.
Jen is John’s big sister, best friend and surrogate mother. As children they are each other’s refuge from their parents’ rows and their father’s quick fists. We see them growing older, with small costume changes being used to indicate the passage of time; they learn to bicker and tease, but remain entirely devoted. In 1963, Jen heads for university in New York and promptly becomes a pot-smoking, LSD-loving, kaftan-wearing hippy. Twelve year old John is left to the tender mercies of his reactionary dad and, desperate to make the old man proud, grows into a stolid, baseball-playing patriot who signs up for service in Vietnam.
At this point, you may be surprised to learn that John and Jen is a sung-through musical, with only a very few lines of spoken dialogue. The two performers, Saratha Rajeswaran and Kevin Sherwin are wonderful singers, and are ably supported by a band of three tucked away at the back of the stage. There are some good songs, the best of which, for me are the more humorous ones like Dear God, about wanting to kill one’s teenage sibling, and Bye Room, about leaving for summer camp. Talk Show, which has Jen and her son pouring out their respective frustrations on daytime TV is another clever song, and slickly performed. However by the time we reached the overlong final scenes, I was finding the emotional numbers a bit overwrought in relation to their subject matter.
You wouldn’t immediately take Rajeswaran and Sherwin for full siblings, and yet, it doesn’t really matter. Rajeswaran’s Jen is small but tough and feisty; Sherwin’s John is big but vulnerable. Rajeswaran makes a convincing hippy, while Sherwin has the physique to carry off being a baby, a boy and a young man. When they sing together, as they do for most of the show, they make a beautiful sound.
The set is dominated by giant alphabet building blocks, which at various intervals are arranged to spell out ‘John’ and ‘Jen’. At other points the characters rearrange them into different configurations which may be significant, but look very much like movement for the sake of movement. Props are simple, and the whole production relies primarily on the music and the chemistry between the performers. But really, if I’m going to order a sung-through musical, it needs to come with a side order of camp and be presented in flamboyant fashion. I want fancy costumes and/or high-kicking and/or pyrotechnics. John and Jen is an odd beast that tries to tackle big issues – social change, war, family ties – but never really does any of them justice, because everything has to be sung, and because it rattles through forty years in ninety minutes. It has emotion and humour, but also a slightly off-putting portentousness. By the end of it I had about as much insight into 60s counterculture as I had into law at the end of Legally Blonde, The Musical.
I can’t fault the performances or the music in this production. Rajeswaran in particular has a voice and a face that convey reams of emotion. But the show as a whole works best when it plays for laughs because, for a story primarily about relationships, the characters are underdeveloped, and the insights into their behaviour often shallow and unconvincing. This is by no means a bad show, but I’m not quite sure it achieves all it sets out to do.
Lyrics: Tom Greenwald
Music: Andrew Lippa
Book: Andrew Lippa & Tom Greenwald
Director: Dom O’Hanlon
Musical Director: Sarah Burrell
Producer: Sarah Burrell for Pinot Productions
Booking Until: 23rd February 2015.
Box Office: 020 7835 2301
Booking Link: https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/search/searchVenue.asp?venue_id=61085