Review by Daz Gale
A British-based musical returns to a familiar place for its long-awaited UK-staged premiere. During the dark days of 2020 when theatres were unable to open, Before After took to the stage at Southwark Playhouse for a special streamed performance, broadcast live. I tuned in and immediately fell in love with the show, so was thrilled to hear it was returning to the same building but this time with an actual audience. I certainly loved it before but would this production make me fall in love all over again?
Before After began its life in a workshop at The Other Palace and enjoyed the aforementioned record-breaking live stream from Southwark Playhouse in 2020. Since then, it has had successful productions in Japan and a tour around the Netherlands, but this production marks its UK stage premiere. It tells the story of Ami and Ben who meet by a tree on a hillside and begin a relationship. Well, I say begin. They have already been in a relationship before which Ben fails to remember due to amnesia (Does it sound like a plot from a soap opera yet?). With Ami knowing how badly it ended the first time, would their second chance at love give them a happy ending and what will happen when Ben discovers the truth?
This intriguing and seemingly familiar concept plays out across two time frames, conveniently named “Before” and “After” (Suddenly the title makes sense!) – the before being Ami and Ben’s first relationship, before it ended badly and the accident which caused his amnesia; and the After being their growing relationship from their first meet/reunion at the tree. Think a cross between The Last Five Years and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind with a bit of Sunday In The Park With George thrown in for good measure… or ‘Eternal Sunshine Of The Last Five Years With George’ if you will.
Written by Timothy Knapman, Before After takes a gentle approach to this couple as it explores the various stages of both of their relationships. The changing dynamic in this tender two-hander is played out beautifully with the constant darting back and forth to different situations and time frames never becoming confusing, thanks to the clear storytelling. Though the story has no shortage of drama, it is played out with emotion and sensitivity in a production that is raw, unforgiving and extremely intimate.
The fittingly intimate space of The Little at Southwark Playhouse Borough perfectly complements this theme, with Ben (Jacob Fowler) and Ami (Grace Mouat) surrounded by an audience on three sides, leaving nowhere to hide and a great sense of vulnerability as every facial expression, stance and teardrop becomes instantly visible. Georgie Rankcom’s inspired direction maximises this in an attempt to connect with the audience which it manages successfully. Perfectly aligning with Timothy Knapman’s writing, the transitions from Before to After and back again through the simplest of changes ensure an easy-to-follow and never jarring show, with Jacob and Grace being used for all of their strengths.
Stuart Matthew Price’s music and lyrics (with additional lyrics by Timothy Knapman) create a clear narrative, exploring every bit of depth from this complicated and unconventional relationship. In both solo numbers and duets, they shine at every opportunity with obvious comparisons to Sondheim being made in some of the numbers and subject matters, which is the highest compliment anyone could get. Though the musical numbers are intimate and quiet, performed by a small band, I kept wondering how they might sound even grander, imagining they could really come alive in a bigger space. That said, it is the intimate nature of this story and setting that makes Before After so resonating so this space and size band also works well in illuminating the numbers.
Having worked together on Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella in 2022, Grace Mouat and Jacob Fowler reunite to once again play lovers not on an easy path… though Grace keeps her shoes on this time. With the pair having proven chemistry, they are extremely believable as the difficult couple, giving a sense of authenticity to a story that may not have landed in other hands. Both Grace and Jacob show off their multiple strengths and versatility as performers with their proven incredible vocals utilised throughout. Though both performers could blow the roof off the place with a seemingly unlimited range if they wanted to, it made a refreshing change to hear them hold back to allow for nuanced performances fitting of the material.
Both performers tapped into their characters to embody their strengths and weaknesses in fine form. From the frustrated confusion as Jacob’s Ben attempted to remember his past to Ami’s conflicted emotions as she debated whether to come clean. The emotional climax at the end saw both deliver a fantastic performance with a testament to their stunning acting abilities. A special mention must also go to Jacob Fowler’s comic timing in several moments, allowing for a much-needed bit of light in a show that at times risked draining your emotions.
Before After is a beautifully romantic show and one that I have enjoyed watching adapt over the years. With great source material, this has the ability to run and run, winning over an ever-growing fanbase of adoring audiences. Admittedly, it may need the slightest of tweaking in places to ensure every beat consistently lands, but for a first fully staged UK outing, this was pretty impressive. I loved it before and I certainly loved it after – though I had reviewed it once before, this really was like falling in love with the show for the first time.
Before After plays at The Little space in Southwark Playhouse Borough until 2nd March. Tickets from www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Photos by Danny Kaan