What do you get when you put together a West End and Broadway leading lady with an emerging new talent? Theatre magic is the answer.
Southwark Playhouse is currently playing host to the world premiere of an updated version of Andrew Lippa and Tom Greenwald's John & Jen. First appearing off-Broadway in 1995, the show originally told the story of the titular characters through the years 1952-1990. It now spans 1985 right up to the present day.
Rachel Tucker swaps the bright lights of Broadway for the smaller of two theatres nestled inside the fabulous Southwark Playhouse. Witnessing such a powerhouse performer in such an intimate space only adds to how special this show is. Tucker is as exceptional as ever as she channels the complicated character of Jen. Through childhood to her teenage years to motherhood, Rachel takes us on an emotional journey in this masterclass snapshot of one womans life in less than two hours.
Lewis Cornay has the unenviable task of not only trying to match such a legendary performer on an intimate stage but also having to play two characters - Jen's brother and Jen's son - both called, you guessed it, John. Lewis is an absolute revelation, more than rising to the occasion of holding his own alongside the performer he is sharing the stage with. As he plays two characters, he has to delve into even more emotions which he does with relish. His childhood innocence is played with more authenticity than you might usually see from adults playing children, his journey into adolescence feels all too real and his struggle to live in his uncles shadow later on adds depth to the story.
This is a two hander in every meaning of the word - both Lewis and Rachel share the limelight, allowing eachother to shine when need be. The chemistry between the pair is clear to see with their changing relationship laid out plainly and executed flawlessly. One highlight has to be during 'Little League' with Rachel Tucker channelling her best "baseball mom" complete with genius slow motion reaction sequence.
Without spoiling the story too much, John & Jen showcases the complicated relationships between families across different generations and even the same one. Jen's talked about but never seen father poses an ongoing threat but the way both John's talk about him is brilliant example (and all too relatable) of differing feelings within the same family. Themes explored in the show include forgiveness for your own mistakes and second chances.
The songs in the show at times feel oddly familiar. With some repetition in numbers in act omne and act 2, it allows the audience to revisit past moments in an unexpected new way with both 'Christmas' songs providing this. More emotional than perhaps expected particularly in show closer 'Goodbye Hello', the show isn't without its laugh out loud moments with the annoyingly catchy 'Trouble With Men' and the 'Talk Show' scene providing two highlights.
Utterly charming, John & Jen ticks along for two glorious acts, always ensuring the audience are always captivated. An all too typical tale of a fairly disfunctional family, its success is in its simplicity. Relatable but with some unexpected twists and turns and a satisfying conclusion, John & Jen is an absolute triumph. A revelation in theatre which shows how much of a story can be told solely through two incredible performers. See it while you can or you will be missing out on something special.
John & Jen plays at Southwark Playhouse until August 21st. Tickets from southwarkplayhouse.co.uk