Well! Take a big deep breath! This is a massive, impressive show in a tiny little space! And one that really pulled me in different directions. I have to say though, I loved yet hated it all at the same time.
Just coming out of Covid restrictions I really wasn’t ready for the Small at the Southwark Playhouse to be quite so full of people with no masks, and have no obvious ventilation. With additional theatrical haze, the auditorium was more claustrophobic than intimate, and I heard another attendee say “If I’m ever going to get Covid it will be today”. I actually considered leaving because I felt uncomfortable, so just be aware of what to expect if you are planning to attend.
As for the show, John and Jen, written by Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald, tells the story of siblings growing up in small town America. Born six years apart, they share an emotional upbringing. They do the usual things kids do, waiting up for Santa, playing ball, and embarrassing each other in front of friends. In the background, however, we’re made aware that their dad is violent. Jen becomes a mother figure for John, and they make a pact that they will always be there for each other. But time moves on, and the day comes when Jen escapes to university, and their worlds divide. John feels let down, and when Jen finally returns they are now very different people. John joins the Navy and their last argument before he goes off to war is acrimonious. When he doesn’t come back, Jen is unable to let go of her brother’s memory, and tries to relive his life vicariously through her son, named John after her brother. Ultimately her dependency nearly pushes her son away. And all of that, in song and dance.
This is a challenging two-handed production with a flawless cast, expertly directed by Guy Retallack. The performances from Rachel Tucker and Lewis Cornay are absolutely phenomenal! Both have astonishing, versatile voices, and their casting (credited to Leon Kay Casting) is inspired, as their synchronicity seems totally instinctive and seamless. They laugh, they cry, they dance, all while impeccably focused. I cannot find fault with anything they do – it’s the Olympic gold medal standard of musical theatre (Torvill and Dean ain’t got nothing on this, baby!). The music, played exquisitely by a quartet, is often haunting, always faultless, and navigates the roller coaster narrative sensitively. Although the set is tiny, thoughtful design by Natalie Johnson uses every inch of it to great effect, with clever use of props and costume, whilst subtle but complex lighting design from Andrew Exeter is effective and evocative, transporting us effortlessly across locations and time, and reflecting the emotional surges of the piece.
There are some incredibly comical parts to the show, executed to perfection and really laugh out loud funny. But here’s the thing: largely I found the actual storyline just too schmaltzy. From their being little kids waiting for Santa, offset with a dead brother, it is truly American mawkishness, and just not my cup of tea. Additionally, this is a reworking of the show, bringing it up to date with commentary on the pandemic, and raves in the 90s instead of the hippy 60s, but I’m not clear what this actually adds. I was hoping by modernising the story it would make more of a statement about toxic masculinity and the pressures on females in society to be the support for families, but I didn’t really get that. In fact, it was Jen who was doing the apologising come the end, something I found just a bit sad. That being said, if you like a sentimental musical this is the pinnacle of the genre!
Directed by: Guy Retallack
Musical Supervision by: Michael Bradley
Musical Direction by: Chris Ma
Scenic & Costume Designed by: Natalie Johnson
Sound Design by: Andrew Johnson
Lighting Design by: Andrew Exeter
Produced by: Bray Productions
John and Jen is playing at Southwark Playhouse until 21 August. More information and booking via the below link.