Pros: Bags of charm and likeable characters.
Cons: Not hugely original.
You generally know what you’re going to get at Above the Stag. Nine times out of ten you can expect a camp romp involving pretty young actors taking their clothes off. The theatre has made a success of programming these sort of shows, which go down well with their audience of regular patrons. Yes, they do occasionally dip a toe into more adventurous territory (I was recently impressed by Torsten, The Beautiful Libertine and Haram Iran) but as a rule the venue specialises in titillating froth – which as a description sounds appropriately panto so I’ll let it stand.
However, I’ve had to give myself a slap on my cynical wrist after seeing When Harry Met Barry. It may not break new theatrical ground but it is a superbly accomplished musical production in which the story, performances and direction combine to yield a sparkling show that’s feel-good without being vacuous.
The first thing that struck me was that the cast of four don’t wear microphones. This is a rarity even in small venues (I’ve had my ears unnecessarily blasted at the similarly-sized Trafalgar Studio) and I applaud the production for trusting the actors to be able to project above the piano and cello accompaniment.
The story involves four young Brits bemoaning the unlucky state of their love lives in the cleverly interwoven opening number “Singletons”. Before you know it, fashion designer Spencer (Austin Garrett) has hooked up with TV chef Harry (Brandon Gale), and lawyer Barry (Sam Peggs) has connected with free spirit Alice (Maddy Banks) in their local laundrette. Spencer and Alice also meet and become instant bezzies, thus efficiently setting up the show’s love quadrangle (square?) structure. If I mention that Harry and Barry have unresolved history then you’ll either guess the plot immediately or you’ve led a very sheltered life.
But who needs narrative innovation when there’s so much charm and tip-top stagecraft going on? The cast are uniformly loveable, taking their parts just as seriously as they need to without stretching the rather thin characterisation to breaking point, and director Steven Dexter works wonders. On a small stage that can feel crowded when all four characters are on, he has the courage to put one of them on roller-skates, and a duet involving glove puppets is staged with irresistible humour and imagination. This is masterful, assured direction perfectly tuned to the piece and the stage it’s playing on.
The songs hop between perky mid-tempo numbers and pretty ballads. There’s nothing particularly memorable on the melody front, but as mood-establishers the songs work well enough and there are some well sung harmonies. The lyrics occasionally exhibit some spiky wit but are more often sweetly platitudinous (“stars are shining/silver lining” etc.). But again such quibbles are easily forgiven in a show that’s so very likeable and engaging.
Later this year Above the Stag is moving to new premises which will accommodate a main stage and also a studio space. It would be wonderful if this expansion were to herald a new and more courageous commissioning strategy, as this theatre is uniquely placed to nurture adventurous new writing addressing the full diversity of gay life. As enjoyable as When Harry Met Barry is, it’s a revival of a previous success – I think Above the Stag’s loyal audience would relish the chance to see and support some bolder programming choices.
Writer: Paul Emelion Daly
Director: Steven Dexter
Musical Director: Simon David
Producer: Peter Bull
Booking Until: June 11 2017
Booking Link: http://www.abovethestag.com/whatson/when-harry-met-barry/