JOHN & JEN – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – small really IS beautiful

JOHN & JEN

Music by Andrew Lippa

Lyrics by Tom Greenwald

Book by Tom Greenwald and Andrew Lippa

Directed by Guy Retallack

Southwark Playhouse – until 21 August

https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show-whats-on/john-jen/

If you go and see this -and if you’re interested in musical theatre as an art form then you really really should- then you may want to take tissues…. a whole bunch of them actually, as there are likely to be tears. Many tears in fact. Although it couldn’t be more different in scale and ambition, this engrossing chamber musical scored by one of America’s most interesting but underrated composers, Andrew Lippa (best known here for The Addams Family, touring again shortly) packs an equal emotional punch to any of the traditionally ‘weepy’ shows such as Les Mis or Rent. Or at least it will to anybody who’s had a sibling, borne a child, fallen out with a family member, or suffered a loss.

Beyond raving about the note-perfect cast (Rachel Tucker and Lewis Cornay, and it’s hard to imagine anybody else inhabiting these roles) or Guy Retallack’s terrific, truthful staging which strikes an exquisite balance between showy, naturalistic and inventive, or Lippa and Greenwald’s surging score -only intermittently melodic perhaps but never less than expressive- finely played by Chris Ma’s superb, string-heavy quartet, it’s difficult to recommend this too overtly without spoiling the story. Set across decades, it begins as a touching tale of smalltown American Jen and her fractious but loving relationship with her much younger brother John in the face of a troubling family background.

So far, so simple, but what unfolds becomes a quietly fascinating look at the timeline of US history from the 1980s to the present day (the original New York production set the show between the 1950s to the 1990s, but the update here is seamless) taking in the ‘endless war’ in the Middle East, 9-11, even the pandemic, all charted against a deeply intimate story of the effect two contrasting siblings have on each other. It’s also about the deep bond between a mother and child, and the dangers of bringing the expectation of past familial tensions to bear on younger generations. It’s ingenious and involving, but never feels heavy handed, even in a bizarre second act Game Show send-up where two of the lead characters air their grievances to a baying crowd. Here the sheer aplomb and accuracy with which Cornay and Tucker nail the TV genre deflects attention from the fact that it’s quite a radical departure from the main, rich meat of the piece.

Given her impressive musical theatre track record on both sides of the Atlantic, it’s hardly a surprise that Tucker sings this rangy, challenging score with fearlessness and an exhilarating soprano-edged belt, but it’s her acting that proves the real knockout here. She moves so convincingly from wide-eyed youngster to impassioned radicalism to early middle aged American Mom, that you almost forget it’s the same actress, although it is very much a consistent portrayal of a flawed but lovable young woman. Her innate warmth and relatability have seldom, if ever, been shown off to such powerful effect as they are here. Try and forget the look on her face when she realises that her beloved younger brother is on the brink of going off to fight in a war she is so passionately opposed to, or watch her physicality break open in her cathartic, healing 11 o’clock number, the stirring “The Road Ends Here”. She’s utterly brilliant.

Lewis Cornay matches her every step of the way. He spends more of the show playing a child but does so endearingly, with absolute wit and economy, never once tipping over into the panto-like excesses some grown-up actors are prone to when playing a pre-teen. A superb comedian, Cornay also makes chillingly convincing the sequences when he turns on his idealistic sister. It’s a very accomplished performance.

It’s highly likely that Rachel Tucker will return to the New York production of Come From Away to resume ripping the roof off the Schoenfeld Theatre when Broadway reopens this autumn, and Lewis Cornay deserves to be heading for great things: don’t miss the chance to see them up close and together in this extraordinary little-but-mighty musical, their chemistry is magical. But don’t forget those tissues.

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