Review by Sam Waite
I’ve often thought that young adult angst and the horror genre both lend themselves well to musicalisation – both, after all, are dependent on the kind of intense, unrestrained emotions we associate with breaking into song. Elements of both are at play in this workshop production of Dear Diary – billed as a “thriller-drama musical” – in which student squabbles seem to have reached a deadly climax.
Dear Diary opens on a monologue by drama student Kirsty, seemingly making another entry in this titular journal. The impassioned speech gives way to the title song before the stage is plunged into darkness and a gunshot heard. Kirsty is found dead with a gun (wiped of any fingerprints) beside her leg, and her devoutly kept diary below her head, while four fellow students become immediate suspects.
The constant air of suspense is strong in Adonis Kat’s script, with it being immediately clear that Kirsty’s classmates have something they desperately want to hide, but whether one or all of them is a killer is less clear. Meanwhile, further questions are brought into play by flashbacks and diary entries in which the question of Kirsty taking her own life is raised. It’s clear that Kat has taken a great deal of care in crafting this story and keeping the needed suspense present and engaging throughout.
An intelligent, and openly acknowledged, element of the story is that Kirsty is spoken about primarily through the lens of her peers, with their own biases shaping our understanding of her and casting into doubt whether the flashbacks we see are entirely accurate. Kat’s dialogue always sounds believably human, and like conversations that students might actually have with one another – this helps to deepen the mystery of Kirsty’s personality, as we are given no clues about what the others could be imagining or warping in their own memories.
The other drama students are arrogant Danny (Ryan J. Edwards), his jealous girlfriend Fiona (Chloë Easton Smiter), determined overachiever Lizzie (Sofia Andolcetti), and lovesick nice-guy Stefan (Juan Lobo). All four work well together as a group, their strengths as both characters and actors complimenting each other. Lobo stood out as a stronger actor, delivering his own heart-felt monologue and seeming the most damaged by the situation from the start, but each of the quartet gets a moment to shine. Andolcetti gets a rousing act two solo, while Smiter, whose background is primarily in dance, delivers her own number with a choreographed movement piece helping her to translate the sometimes-cruel Fiona’s emotional upheaval.
The songs themselves, composed by Dylan Owen and with Kat as lyricist, are catchy and easy to engage with – particular highlights come with Kirsty’s opening number, “Dear Diary”, and “I Wish I Was You”, a power-house duet for former best friends Stefan and Danny. The small ensemble all sing well and sell their numbers, but the strongest voices belong to Edwards and Kirsty herself, Abigail Hebdon. As with his script, Kats has a flair for simple but dynamic writing in his lyricism, and Owen’s music is equally enjoyable, and it’s easy to imagine how lush it could sound with a live band.
Hebdon’s performance, despite Kirsty dying in the opening scene, is central to understanding the narrative and emotional journeys of the other characters. Her strength as an actress comes through during the opening scene as she expresses years of torment and buried anger, and her comedic skills come into play during a mocking battle of words with former-bestie Fiona in which Kirsty comes out of her demure shell to lay into the would-be mean girl.
Staging by Juan Alcaide Gonzalez helps to clarify the handful of changes in setting – though as simple as the workshop appendix would imply, they are generally very effective. A particular moment of innovation comes in the form of a dismantled stock cage, the kind you might see being used in your local supermarket, to represent the bars of holding cells while the four suspects await further questioning. Equally simple and effective, Julia Smith provides lighting and sound design including the addition of a BBC News alert and the aforementioned gunshot.
While there are the minor technical difficulties you’d expect from a workshop in a minute space – occasional distortion of vocals; a slight delay between a lighting cue and its matching sound effect – this is a strong showing for a musical still in active development. A Q&A session with the cast and writer provided some insights into the creation, while also welcoming feedback and suggestions for how to reshape the material for future productions.
Ambitious, daring, and the clear product of a genuine passion for storytelling and for musical theatre, Dear Diary is surprisingly strong for such an early stage of its development, and I look forward to seeing what’s next for the project. With a follow-up performance arranged weeks before the initial one-off due to unanticipated demand, this looks unlikely to be their final entry.
Dear Diary is planned for further development following this two-night run at Etcetera Theatre Camden.
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