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Review: In Clay (Upstairs at the Gatehouse)

Review by Daz Gale

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

The recent news that VAULT Festival has been unable to secure a new home and won’t be continuing caused ripples among the theatre community, upsetting many who rely on it as a launchpad for new shows. A vital commodity for nurturing and showcasing the stars of tomorrow, last year’s festival has produced some incredible shows, many of which have gone on to further life, having recently completed expanded runs or announcing them for the imminent future. If it, rather heartbreakingly, doesn’t return, its legacy can be the continued success of shows it launched with new musical In Clay one of my personal highlights from 2023. Having been blown away by it at the festival, I have been following this show closely and eagerly anticipated the announcement it was returning for a run at Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate. Occasionally a show I have loved early in their developmental run hasn’t been able to sustain their momentum throughout which is always disappointing, so I went into this show a second time cautiously optimistic but with a great deal of trepidation. Would I love it as much as I did last year or would it have lost the pot?


 

In Clay is based on the real life of Marie-Berthe Cazin who tells her story in her Parisian kitchen in the 1930s as she awaits the arrival of her childhood friend. Through the course of 90 minutes, we get to discover how she fell in love with ceramics as well as how she fell in love with her husband and all that she lost along the way, Giving a voice to a woman who was so often overlooked, it puts her story front and centre, attempting to right a wrong from history.

 

The title In Clay and even its essential premise may not seem like the most riveting of tales, but the phrase “Never judge a book by its cover” comes to mind. The musical is far deeper than that, taking the art form and using it as an example for the grandest of themes – humanity and love itself.



Rebecca Simmonds's book gently weaves the narrative, ensuring Marie-Berthe’s story is told with sensitivity and tenderness. This ties into Jack Miles's music perfectly to create a quiet and unassuming story that slowly creeps into you, ensuring a lasting impact (as testified by the fact this hasn’t left my mind since I first saw it in January 2023). The characterisation that has been given to Marie-Berthe Cazin ensures a consistently captivating performance with no need for bells and whistles as the story is enough on its own. In some respects, I found In Clay to be unlike anything I have ever seen before. While it still very much falls into the realm of musical theatre, it carves out its own identity to create something refreshing and beautiful.


Where Simmonds's book and Miles’ music are impressive enough, it is their collaboration on the lyrics that truly elevates In Clay to something special. One of the most memorable elements of this musical, the intelligence and care that has gone into crafting every lyric of every song is wonderful and extremely inventive in their approach. Whereas so many songs feature predictable lyrics and rhymes, In Clay keeps you on your toes, coming up with leftfield lyrics that further the story and show real talent from the writers.

 


Speaking of that word, the early musical number ‘Talent’ is an immediate classic and the one number that showcases the phenomenal pairing of Miles and Simmonds's writing perfectly. With 11 musical numbers spread through the 90 minutes, the standard never falters. ‘Spark’, ‘One In A Million’, ‘Empty Letters’, and ‘See-through’ are all highlights in a show whose music carefully balances with the book to create a cohesive narrative. Some other musicals may feature stronger songs and a book that isn’t up to that same standard, while some have the opposite problem. In Clay has both working together, lifting each other to ensure the writing always amazes at every turn.

 

Rosalind Ford reprises her role as Marie-Berthe Cazin from last year’s VAULT Festival. Where she impressed in her portrayal last year, she has moved to a whole new level this time around, with characterisation so flawless, she gives a masterclass in acting. So perfectly in tune with her character, she embodies the role perfectly, eliciting laughs with the cutting side of her personality while always ensuring the audience is rooting for her. In a nuanced and emotive performance, Ford is a force to be reckoned with and brings the house down with her sensational vocals.



Grace Taylor’s direction allows for plenty of action in the relatively intimate space of Upstairs at the Gatehouse. With Ford pacing the length and breadth of the space, a great deal of thought has been given to the intimacy of the story, as the connection with the audience is what makes In Clay so glorious. Rachael Ryan’s set design fills the space with an abundance of ceramics and little playful tricks that allow Taylor’s direction and Ford’s performance to have a lot of fun. The use of art in the staging of the show and the subject itself adds an extra dimension with the inclusion of live pottery throwing nothing short of inspiring. The theatre itself also features an In Clay exhibition, celebrating contemporary women artists working with clay in another beautiful touch, ensuring your visit to this show becomes more of an experience.

 

There is something incredibly exciting about In Clay. I fell in love with it when I saw it last year and that love has only grown in this production. Not only have they not lost anything that made it so special, but they have added so much to it that has taken it to the next level. There is still the sense that there is even more that will be done to this show in the future, which is incredibly exciting given it is already at an exceptional level. Beautiful and tender, In Clay takes the most profound of subjects such as love and loss, and creates an emotive response that tugs at your heart and enchants you along the way, thanks in part to the intelligence in the writing and sensitivity in Ford’s performance. Marie-Berthe Cazin may not have had all the opportunities she deserved during her lifetime, but if there’s any justice, In Clay will. Bursting with talent, one thing’s for sure – this little show has got a big future ahead of it.

 


In Clay plays at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 7th April. Tickets from www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com

 

Photos by Felix Mosse

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