Pros: Some fine singing and soft humour.
Cons: A story that promises so much depth is lost in the midst and the machinery of the musical.
John Robinson was a renowned free-solo climber who died aged just 43 doing what he loved, climbing. He left behind a wife and teenage daughter, Hazel. Eleven years later Hazel found her father’s journals, in which he’d detailed his various climbs and the planning and thought that went into them. Free Solo – A New Musical is described as Hazel’s attempt to answer the question of who her father really was.
The story begins with Hazel rifling through his belongings, hidden away in the loft. As she reads from his journal, we witness flashbacks to her youth and times with her father, her stoic mother holding the family together every time he heads off for another adventure. Until the last time when finally he fails to return.
There is clearly a fascinating story to tell here. Free solo climbing is a crazy sport, climbing without the aid of any safety harness, only your bare hands and feet holding you to the rockface! What possesses a person to risk their life in such a way, when a single mistake could (and eventually did) mean death? Does that person think about the wife and daughter they leave behind every time they head for their next big adventure? And what do those left behind think and feel when their loved one is away, waiting in angst for that phone call to say they have completed the climb and are coming home again?
Unfortunately, Free Solo fails to really address any of these questions satisfactorily. The decision to turn what could be an incredible story into a musical baffles me. Maybe the answer comes in its conception as part of a university course. I can only assume that the remit was to put together a musical, and that someone found the story of Hazel Robinson and decided to put it to music.
I really wish they hadn’t, I really wished that someone had taken this story in a very different direction, preferably without the musical element. In this genre successful shows work on the premise of catchy tunes, catchy direction and flashy costumes and scenery. We get little of that here, and quite simply the story is too good to waste in the musical format. It is a story that needs to breath more. Less singing, more exploring.
But it is what it is, so as a musical how does it work? My major issue was that the singing is all too often drowned out by the live band hidden behind the scenery, with the drums being the worse offender. It’s a shame, as when you do hear clearly, you realise that they can sing; the closing a capella number briefly highlights three beautiful voices. On a positive note there are a couple of good moments with the songs, and there is plenty of soft humour, none more so than when Hazel sings of her father as Spiderdad. In fact it is Cecily Redman’s portrayal of the young Hazel, completely in awe of her dad, and later as a stroppy teenager, that gives this show hope that it could be reworked into something better.
When it does all too briefly touch on that promised premise of discovering who her father was, again it glimpses at what it could have been. Clearly there is something in how on the one hand John Robinson was heroic, but on the other he was all too often absent, too often leaving his family behind to worry about him. At the very end when mother and daughter discuss if they were somehow responsible for his death, there is a glimmer of hope in the story. But only a glimmer, and one that burned out too quickly and too soon.
Writer: Jack Godfrey & Celine Snippe
Director: Nick Leos
Producer: Alice Greening
Booking Until: 5 May 2018
Box Office: 020 7835 2301
Booking link: www.thedraytonarmstheatre.co.uk/tickets