Camden Fringe 2023
Cynthia Powell was an art student when she met John Lennon in 1957. He was a traumatised teenager, having lost his mother, been abandoned by his father and brought up by his strict Aunt Mimi. She was soon pregnant with their son Julian, and the two rushed into a rocky and even violent marriage. Cynthia tried to care for Julian in parallel with John’s rise to fame and experimentation with mysticism, mind-altering drugs and other women. In 1968 they divorced after years of his infidelity, most notably with Yoko Ono. She herself died in 2015, perhaps never achieving a self-identity that took her beyond being ‘John Lennon’s first wife’.
This Girl – The Cynthia Lennon Story by Mike Howl is clearly made with affection but really needs a polish. It’s a difficult task to relate Cynthia’s story without centring it on her relationship with John, but here she is certainly not depicted as a protagonist in her own right. In fact Lennon, played by Marky Reader, is actually the most prominent character in the production.
The musical is structured in two parts: from Cynthia meeting John to the couple’s splitting up, then post-John, concluding with questionable suggestions that he’d intimated shortly before his death that he was going to reunite with her. We find out little about Cynthia’s early life, her work as an artist, designer and a writer, and the biography is incomplete: it neglects to mention some other partners after John. She is largely shown as a mother and as ‘John’s wife’ (a legacy she did admit she’d resigned herself to).
Cynthia is portrayed in two roles: an older version (Roxanne Male) reflecting and commenting on past events, and a younger (Emily Guilfoyle) who lives most of the action. Male’s narrative certainly has a use but feels clunky, as if its purpose is to load us up with facts. Whilst Guilfoyle lacks a little in confidence, her partner Reader does a good job of driving the action onwards; but he’s fighting a weak script and is at his most impressive singing with a guitar in his hands.
The cast includes some competent singers performing pleasantly harmonised numbers, but there are moments of out of key or very quiet singing, which are conspicuous. The new songs, by Frankie Connor, Alan Crowley and Billy Kinsley, are nice enough but don’t reflect any temporal evolution across musical periods so feel levered in.
The script suffers from self-consciously forcing corny Beatles references and lyrics into the dialogue. Penny Lane is mentioned several times but within geographically incorrect allusions, undercutting the authenticity.
Some rather unimaginative platforms are the only staging, and they’re not really assisted by the tech. When John’s shocking death occurs, for example, there’s opportunity for complementary emotive lighting, but little happens. A projection screen is used infrequently and mostly stays glaringly blank. Sound effects repeatedly use a clichéd echo effect as flashback: “I’ll never leave you Cyn, Cyn, Cyn…”
The costumes don’t evolve either: the early 60s rock and roll dresses return inappropriately in much later eras. The Beatles leave Hamburg, signed up by Brian Epstein (Kevin Thomas), but John’s still in his leather jacket and his hair doesn’t change. Famously dapper Brian enters with his shirt hanging out, a creased suit and the most dreadful wig.
This feels like a well intentioned production, but it needs someone to step back and look at the overall result. Currently it has a patchy script, unremarkable music, staid staging, and actors who would benefit from some rigorous direction. With consideration it might offer a much better perspective on this interesting woman’s life.
Written and Directed by: Mike Howl
Musical Direction by: Mark (Strider) Reader
Original songs (words and music) by: Frankie Connor, Alan Crowley and Billy Kinsley
Tech/Sound/Lighting by: Ian McMillan
This Girl – The Cynthia Lennon Story played at Camden Fringe 2023 and has completed its current run.