HERE YOU ARE – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – Southwark Playhouse is back with a live show ….and it’s a little gem

Wendi Peters in YOU ARE HERE – production photograph by Callum Heinrich

Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram

Book by Brian Hill

Directed by Matthew Rankcom for The Grey Area Theatre Company

Southwark Playhouse until 12 June 2021, live streamed 22 May

https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

We may be (hopefully) coming out of a global pandemic but there is -despite the one way systems, compulsory face masks, and perspex screens dividing groups of audience members- something comfortingly “business as usual” about this reopening offering at Southwark. YOU ARE HERE may be The Grey Area Theatre Company’s first time at this South London venue, but this frequently delightful chamber piece very much adheres to what feels like the Southwark Playhouse “house style” of quirky, new or seldom seen musicals in nicely inventive stagings with West End standard production values and casting.

Premiered at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Opera House in the USA back in 2018, Neil Bartram and Brian Hill’s ninety minute musical takes as its starting point the first men on the moon in 1969 and the effect that a whole new universe of possibilities suddenly opening up has on Diana, a suburban Chicago housewife. From Shirley Valentine to Flowers For Mrs Harris and The Bridges of Madison County, centring on an apparently “ordinary” woman transforming her life into something rather more exciting, is not particularly original, but Hill’s book has a couple of twists up its sleeve -one of which colours the way you’ll perceive the rest of the evening- that render You Are Here a particularly absorbing and haunting example of that storytelling trope.

With it’s attractive blend of ‘legit’ MT and 1960s pop idioms, Bartram’s music is occasionally reminiscent of Jason Robert Brown’s Broadway score for The Bridges of Madison County (seen over here at the Menier in 2019) and also of Jeanine Tesori’s exquisite work on Caroline (Or Change) and Fun Home; if it never quite hits the delirious heights of brilliance that this trio of musicals achieves, it provides a witty, evocative and dramatic aural landscape. The rhyme-heavy lyrics are less successful overall but only occasionally descend into triteness. Some of the songs really are lovely, and they sound fresh as paint in Laura Bangay’s small-but-perfectly-formed orchestrations, played by an accomplished all-female trio led by Bangay herself.

Matthew Rankcom’s production flows effortlessly, melding together with considerable skill the more fanciful elements of the story with some unsettling moments of harsh reality. Libby Todd’s deceptively clever set design simultaneously evokes the kitschy, wood-and-stone decor of 1960s Middle America and the sometimes smooth, sometimes cratered, always bewitching surface of the moon itself.

Wendi Peters sympathetically plays Diana with a compelling, entirely convincing combination of anxiety, hyper-vigilance shading into wide-eyed wonder, and sheer heartbreak. She also finds a welcome leavening of mischief in the role and sings with a rangy, medium-sized belt that can flip from sweet to shrill within one bar of music. It’s a very fine performance.

Her three supporting players -providing a sort of watchful, sardonic musical Greek Chorus when not playing a variety of roles- are no less impressive. Rebecca McKinnis invests Diana’s more sophisticated friend with a brittle elegance and humour, and Phil Adèle brings real weight to a traumatised drifter Diana encounters, and satisfying warmth to an unexpected potential love interest. Jordan Frazier displays genuine star quality as a hotel maid with hidden depths who befriends our heroine, she’s a real find.

Ultimately, You Are Here is a bittersweet confection, beautifully presented: at first, it perhaps seems rather slight but as it gathers pace it becomes a genuinely affecting exploration of loneliness and disillusion, and a gently uplifting paean to the spark of the extraordinary in everybody. I rather loved it.

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