Young Vic Theatre, London SE1
Opened 17 June, 2009

This is very much a yes-and-no project. On the one hand, one can see why it seemed a good idea to turn Ché Walker’s 1998 play into a musical: there’s love, loss, requital and un-, conflict and a kind of getting of wisdom. On the other, one can also see why it works only fitfully in practice: the five characters aren’t really enough to fill the canvas, and despite the presence of a band and a trio of backing singers on the balcony, certainly aren’t enough to fill Dick Bird’s set on the Young Vic’s main stage, even during the few minutes of the hour and three-quarters during which all five are actually onstage.
On the one hand, this story set around the final week in the life of a London bar/club seems a natural fit for numbers in the contemporary soul/RnB mode; on the other, the grumpy old man in me finds this a genre in which actual tunes have gone out of fashion. Arthur Darvill’s score is at its best (though even then not memorable) when tending more towards old-school “deep soul”, but too often resorts to full-throttle go-girl! bellowing or the kind of meandering number that gets swamped with vocal melisma. (The word “melisma” sounds like a pernicious growth requiring to be cut out surgically, a not entirely inaccurate description of my views on the matter.)
The emotional highs are never high enough nor the lows low enough to sustain a stage musical, particularly not one in this genre. Some people hook up, some don’t, threats are made and rescinded, and in the end barman Barney stoically closes up the Club Arizona for good, after reflecting, “We was a happy bar once. Then, through some subtle shift in the ether, we became a loser’s bar.” It’s almost as if Tennessee Williams’ Small Craft Warnings had been turned into a musical… and imagine what that would be like.
“Soul legend” Omar, “the founder of nu-classic British Soul” according to his programme biography, holds the line adequately though without great distinction as Barney; likewise, of his quartet of customers only Naana Agyei-Ampadu is animated enough to make a real mark on proceedings. Arinze Kene is insufficiently magnetic, Harry Hepple insufficiently threatening and Cat Simmons, although the best actor on the stage, is musically diffident among such company. Ultimately, if none of the characters really cares about what happens either in or to Arizona, why should we? Or, in the words of Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard, “Yeah, but… no, but…”.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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