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Credit: James Phillips
Credit: James Phillips

City Stories, St James Theatre – Review

Pros: Beautiful music, great voices.

Cons: Relentlessly intense.

Pros: Beautiful music, great voices. Cons: Relentlessly intense. City Stories, which is playing in the St James Studio, marries four short plays by James Phillips with music composed and performed for the show by Rosabella Gregory. The show opens auspiciously. Rosabella, at the piano, has a beautiful voice and her music is full of colour and drama. There is a neat link to the first story, Narcissi, which concerns a pianist, and starts intriguingly with an unexpected declaration of love, over the piano at St Pancras. I am genuinely interested in how this quirky romance will develop. But about…

Summary

Rating

Poor

Good music doesn’t make up for storytelling which is tedious and portentous.

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City Stories, which is playing in the St James Studio, marries four short plays by James Phillips with music composed and performed for the show by Rosabella Gregory.

The show opens auspiciously. Rosabella, at the piano, has a beautiful voice and her music is full of colour and drama. There is a neat link to the first story, Narcissi, which concerns a pianist, and starts intriguingly with an unexpected declaration of love, over the piano at St Pancras. I am genuinely interested in how this quirky romance will develop. But about halfway through I begin to feel that I’m being led down a very long, twisting garden path; when the end comes it’s obscure, mystical and unsatisfying.

The second story, Lullaby, has a post-apocalyptic vibe. Our heroine is the last woman standing, in a city of sleepers, and we follow her as she wanders the empty streets of London, in a state of perpetual breathless, wide-eyed wonder. She goes to her friend’s house, to a bar, over London Bridge, to her boyfriend’s house, to the Ritz, and all to so little purpose that when she too finally succumbs to sleep, it’s a great relief.

After the interval a chap with a fine voice takes to the stage and duets with Rosabella about love. It is very intense, with closed eyes and many references to loving and forgiving and still loving. I fear it says more about me than it does about the show, but I find it cringe-making and a bit random.

Occupy, the third story, has a great premise, about the letters that people write to God. It tells a charming love story about two lonely people finding each other, has a clearer structure and more satisfying ending than either of the previous stories, and is blessedly free of magical realism. With Carousel we end up back in mysticism, loss, grief and cod philosophy.

In all the stories the dialogue is, I suppose, lyrical, and probably works on paper, but on stage sounds mannered and phoney – “he stood before me” – and that sort of thing. Characters are underdeveloped and used simply as a conduit for the many, many words. The secondary character in each play ends up performing a kind of dumb show in response to the main character’s narration of events. I feel particularly for Tom Gordon, who plays three different roles, none of which seems to require much more than a winning smirk.

What’s clever about City Stories is the way it interweaves songs with stories, and I certainly can’t fault either the music or the voices of the various singers. But overall, I found it a draining experience. It is a show for people who enjoy that creative writing of children in which the recurring phrase is “and then I….”. A show for people who enjoy hearing about other people’s dreams. At length.

Author: James Phillips
Director: James Phillips
Composer: Rosabella Gregory
Booking Until: 7 June 2015
Box office: 0844 264 2140
Booking link: http://www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

About Clare Annamalai

Clare Annamalai
A commercial manager in the pharma industry, Clare dreams of doing something a bit more luvvy. She has a degree in English & French from Oxford University, and is a qualified translator. When she’s not driving thermometer sales she’s probably driving her daughters to yet another birthday party, or cleaning out the hamster. So if she occasionally slopes off for a sneaky theatre fix, it’s really the least she deserves. Her preference is for shows where she can sit down and not be expected to participate in any way at all.