Review by Daz Gale
A brand new original British musical has received its world premiere this week. Written by Simon Spencer who is more known for his BAFTA-nominated work producing and directing in TV, this marks his first foray into musical theatre. Knowing his high calibre of work in television and that this is a new medium for him, the title of the show forms a very apt question regarding this show – Are You As Nervous As I Am?
Are You As Nervous As I Am? follows the journey of two sisters, Peggy and Janet. Spanning 30 years, it shows them separated in childhood only to reconnect later in life. As Peggy becomes a star, Janet is there for all the ups and downs as both sisters face significant challenges as the years go by. It should be noted the official synopsis for the show does seem slightly different to the show I actually saw, but more on that later.
The cast is led by Katie Elin-Salt as Peggy Starr who delivers a beautifully charismatic performance depicting the character as she blossoms from naïve youth to the confident star she becomes, and the fractured complexities of the latter years. Katie is effortless as she ventures from one extreme to the other proving she is also a star in her own right.
Emma Thornett shines as Peggy’s sister Janet. Though taking a back seat through a lot of the show and underwritten as a character, Emma does the best with the hand she’s given and provides a beautiful counterpart for her stage sister. Sarah Ingram stands out in the dual role of Peggy and Janets mother and later Janets lover (slightly awkward when looking at playing two roles). Again struggling with underwritten and a relatively generic role, the acting pushes through the script limitations to deliver a great performance. Bill Ward is a highlight as Peggys husband Bob, though definitely plays the softer side of the character better, with the harder moments never quite landing.
There is a big issue which lets down Are You As Nervous As I Am? and that is the writing. While Simon Spencer is an accomplished and talented writer in his own right, it doesn’t quite as easily translate for the stage as it might have done on TV. At times it feels like it was written for the screen with an all too sudden and fairly jarring cliff-hanger acting to act 1 (The biggest disaster involving glass since Cinderella as I like to describe it) felt like it should have been followed by the Eastenders “Duff duffs” rather than send you into the interval in the spirit meant.
Some of the dialogue is, frankly, unforgivable, with one particular line about Helen Keller reading particularly nasty and misjudged. The characters are underwritten and unnaturalistic and there are more holes in the plot than a cheese grater. Inconsistencies really come to the forefront with Peggy desperate to find her sister only to give her the cold shoulder and throw it in her face later on – perhaps a more fleshed out story of the two sisters before they were separated would help to understand their reasonings later on in the play, while the character of their abusive mother far too one-dimensional and underused. Moments in the show that should feel emotional or elicit any sort of response fall completely flat due to tonal inconsistencies.
Phoebe Barrans direction makes the most of the relatively small stage, with props popping out from the wall to transform the stage the best way it can. It can get a bit repetitive though, with too many instances of a character standing in the corner watching on, giving a look or commenting on the action. A bit more variety throughout would have done wonders, particularly given the fact these corners were darkly lit so hard to see.
One thing Are You As Nervous As I Am? has going for it is the music. With music by Leighton James House and lyrics from Shaun McKenna, this gloriously original musical features classic sounding numbers, in keeping with the decades they are set. As Peggys star begins to rise, she gets to deliver some outstanding performances with highlights including ‘With All My Heart’, ‘Something’s Starting’ and (the perhaps too on the nose) ‘Tell Me Darling’, though other characters in the show have minimal time to sing, and the use of characters singing completely different lines over Peggy is done one too many times, losing all impact.
Are You As Nervous As I Am? perhaps tries to cram in a bit too much into a couple of hours, with themes of abuse and finding your own demons the most common among these. This is where the show comes closest to striking gold, but more exposition needs to be done for this to be pulled off. A less successful theme is attitudes towards sexuality which feels glossed over and not played out with the sensitivity it deserves. The synopsis also talks about parallels to new opportunities for women in the 50s, 60s and 70s but this does not come across at all. Peggy’s rags to riches tale has been seen before many a time – there are elements to this production that could give this a point of difference and really make it something special, but it needs a bit of work to get there. Another minor quibble I have is the title doesn’t feel relevant to the show, aside from a seemingly throwaway line at the shows climax, I struggle to see what it has to do with the rest of the show.
New original musicals are always most welcome, and they are not all going to succeed at first. It is important to try to see what works and what doesn’t. With Are You As Nervous As I Am?, I truly believe there is a great show in there. I kept thinking about how much potential this show could have, if it streamlined its themes and padded out the storyline with relevant additions. While it may not be there just yet, I’m not nervous that this show will get there in time. A great cast and some stunning songs still make this a wonderful couple of hours if not completely unproblematic.
Are You As Nervous As I Am? plays at Greenwich Theatre until October 23rd. Tickets from https://www.areyouasnervous.com/
Photos by Pamela Raith