London’s Tabard Theatre is a strange dichotomy – it produces some of the most wonderful work on London’s fringe theatre scene, but yet also ranks as one of the more uncomfortable theatres in town when it comes to legroom.
However, I defy anyone to have complained about comfort when faced with Starbuck Theatre’s moving, rousing, hilarious, thought-provoking and generally triumphant production of a love-song to love The Guide to Being Single.
Alexi Kovin and Kaitlin Gilgenbach’s musical comedy has already been seen in Chicago and New York, but Worcestershire-based Starbuck, under the direction and choreography of leading lady Sarah Pavlovs, have brought it to fresh life in this UK premiere, which played a short run at the Tabard following a well-received run in Droitwich.
Telling the tale of one couple, one putative couple and their surrounding friends and acquaintances all of whom live in Chicago and have been affected by the 25 rules of the ‘anti-dating’ book referenced in the title, it asks simple but pertinent questions about how important love is compared to instant gratification. The book is a manual for those who want to screw without getting screwed up and invokes maxims such as “Never call or text”, “never give your name or take theirs”, “always leave before the start of a new day”, “never repeat with the same person” and, above all, Rule #1 – “Never break the rules”. But what, as they say in their publicity blurb, if the fun is in breaking the rules?
Heather and Zack have been together in blissful harmony for a while when the intervention of Zack’s best friend from college, Derek – a player on and off the baseball field – causes their relationship to run aground. Meanwhile Heather’s freewheeling roommate Jackie seems to have found the perfect one-night stand in Derek, but finds after the ninth night that they might be getting more invested than the book allows. Meanwhile Liza just wants a girl in her life, if only for the night, and Stacy pines for a guy, while the Dude, who crops up everywhere from restaurants to bars to taxis, is desperate for some female company. But is it the book or is it the ancient and unspoken rules of love and commitment that will prove most valuable?
The simple set – a blow-up bed, a table, some chairs, a bar that doubles as a washstand – accommodated everyone perfectly, setting scenes with great simplicity, aided with real style by Doug Earnshaw’s lighting design and eye-catching animated projections. It was a solid base for some solid performances.
Pavlovs navigates in her direction and choreography a small space with a seven-strong cast and does so with great aplomb, never making the stage feel crowded even in the midst of some big full-company numbers. More astonishingly, she has done so while taking on the lead role of Jackie and imbuing her with really rich layers of emotion underneath a seemingly tough (impenetrable would be entirely the wrong word here) exterior. She plays extremely well against Robert Dearn’s Derek, who takes on the role of devil-may-care, crotch-led jock and makes him, song by song, a bruised and dented hero for the 21st century dating world, his voice as multi-faceted as his character.
Jackie is offset beautifully by Sophie Grogan’s Heather, whose role could lapse into cutesy kookiness as the slightly goofy best-friend and lovelorn wedding planner, but whose powerful voice and tremendous presence commands as much respect as it does laughter and sympathy. Her beau, Zack, meanwhile, is given tremendous likeability, even as his personal life slides into near-oblivion, by Jack Scott-Walker. Scott-Walker is possessed of an incredibly beautiful and honeyed voice which can take despair, disaster and the kind of likeable ditheriness that makes one want to shake him, and make it soar. He and Grogan did bring a tear to this jaded old eye as much as they made me howl with laughter.
In principal support, Leila Thompson – the owner of a powerful set of soul-influenced pipes – held up many a number while giving a performance of sass and vitality as Liza (and a variety of other roles), while Holly Russell’s Stacy had a Bambiesque naiveté which could give way to an hilarious brand of raw sexuality at a moment’s notice.
Left with almost the most to do in terms of switching from character to character, Edd Pope’s Dude ranged from starstruck but hapless cabbie through lustful waiter and on to deeply moved sports commentator via a number of other circuitous routes, all of which were played with huge style and a lot of verve.
Plaudits are also due to musical director and pianist Chris Corcoran and his colleagues Russell Collins (drums) and Clare-Louise Appleby (reeds) for revving up a wonderfully-paced, perfectly-pitched score without drowning the cast. Yes, there was the occasional fluffed moment with the cast, or the odd note that didn’t quite make the right frequency on first attempt, but these were so few as to be barely worth a mention.
This is a show whose style, content and sense of musicality owe a lot to Off-Broadway hardy perennial I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change! and Sondheim’s Company without ever ripping off either and which can and should take its place beside them with honour. The music was narrative score at its best, driving the clever, witty lyrics without overpowering them so that, while there’s not a huge number we all go out humming at the end, the sold-out audience left on a musical high which will live long in the memory.
There can be – I hope – no doubt that this is not the last we shall see of this company’s production, and it is a credit to them that they can burst onto the London scene with heads held high, worthy of a place next to any of the first-string new musicals we have seen in town in recent memory.
Dir/Choreog: Sarah Pavlovs
Book: Kaitlin Gilgenbach
Mus/Lyr: Alexi Kovin
MD: Chris Corcoran
Cast: Sophie Grogan, Jack Scott-Walker, Sarah Pavlovs, Robert Dearn, Leila Thompson, Holly Russell, Edd Pope, with Tilly Barnett
While the run of The Guide to Being Single has now closed at the Tabard Theatre Chiswick, any news of further work will be announced on www.starbucktheatrecompany.co.uk