Review by Harry Bower
Four strangers, one public bathroom. No, it’s not the name of the next disgusting viral video doing the rounds – instead it’s the name of one of the last shows to grace VAULT Festival 2023 – PUBLIC The Musical. If you like toilet humour (pun intended) then I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed because this work in progress show is much more intelligent than that.
The brainchild of Stoud and Notes, a non-binary and female-led musical making collective, PUBLIC is a brand-new musical about four strangers who are accidentally locked in a gender-neutral toilet block in Victoria Park, London. Each character represents the diversity of the city and their differences throw up a whole range of clashes and story arcs which could be explored.
We first meet Laura, a nervous and insecure twentysomething coming to terms with a relationship struggle. Quickly the other characters follow with Andrew, the brash and seemingly insensitive cis white guy, disparaging of people’s differences and opinionated from the start. Finlay and Zo complete the quadruple, Finlay a gay man who finds himself having stepped in something nasty outside now running late for a Universal Credit review appointment, Zo the agonisingly posh and delightfully gap-yah stereotype living on daddy’s money and on her way to a protest, with more than a hint of Ja’mie: Private School Girl about her. And then, snap goes the door handle. It’ll be an hour until the park maintenance team can help them escape.
Whether it’s Andrew’s refusal to adhere to Laura’s correct pronouns, or Zo’s desperation to prove herself as an ally; the management of Finlay’s panic attacks or Laura’s boredom of being victimised, every dark corner of the public bathroom holds captivating dialogue, rapidly developing relationships and some relevant, witty and intelligent quips. There’s a confidence to the book which speaks to the quality of some exceptional writing talent that must behind it. None of the interactions come across as awkward or unnatural and in the space of just ten minutes I already felt an emotional connection to each character – even Andrew which, let me tell you, is quite the achievement. It’s hard to remember having met such an unlikable character yet still be absolutely convinced there’s something good in there which will come out.
PUBLIC’s score is something else. When researching the members of Stroud and Notes, the least surprising revelation was that it is fronted by an artist with proven success in the music world, Kyla Stroud. Their music is accomplished beyond that of a work in progress musical in its first showing. With pop and rock influences each track is catchy and familiar yet authentic in its execution and there are already some outstanding harmonies in play. I wrote down “unexpectedly soulful” in my notes too, so take that as you will. With just a keyboard on-stage and some backing instrument sound effects, you could forgive the show from sounding a little shallow, but remarkably that’s not the case. Though described as a musical in development, and it definitely is, the hour long show the VAULT audiences were treated to was worth the entry price alone for the beautiful music.
Some of my favourite tracks are still in my head, over a day later – Tick By Tick probably the most stylistically recognisable of the set, Nervous Disposition the most heartfelt and beautiful – almost Swiftlike in its melodic tenderness. I loved The Voice Note Song (if that’s not its official title it should be!), and the four-hander Small Talk. I’m still not ready to talk about Missing Pieces – the song which moved me the most (I have almost certainly got the names of these songs wrong). Each is arranged with great balance and skilfully structured, not rhyming for the sake of it – there is no cliché musical theatre to be found here. It is wholly original. The score has a unique identity and style. Special mention to the performances of the four actors on-stage who by all accounts had limited time with the material but blew me away with their spectacular passion, energy, and stunning voices. I mean ‘stunning’ in the most literal of ways – audience members next to me had open mouths at moments listening to these hyper-talented vocalists.
Most areas for development require investment – I can only imagine how great this show would look and sound in a purpose-built venue with a full set, longer slot, and characters which are more rounded. It’s testament to the writing that I desperately wanted them to be locked away for just a little bit longer so I could understand more back story, watch relationships unfold, and hear some more superb music. There was at times an overreliance on some cheap and obvious stereotypes though these are at least fully up to date, and I felt not all the characters had redemption arcs as complete as others. Although each track is supreme in quality there is a relatively sharp change in musical style occasionally which felt a little awkward (song On The Other Side?). There is a full two-act show hiding away in the stalls, waiting to be let out.
PUBLIC The Musical is an outstanding beginning to what is sure to be a wild and successful ride for Stroud and Notes and their inaugural cast. It is an admirably kind and good-natured musical with a script which humanises people and their problems and a score which evokes strong emotion. It is also a show strong on representation, uplifting queer characters and not shying away from uncomfortable subject matter. It will challenge some audiences and make others immediately feel at home in its warm and inviting world, despite the cold porcelain. Far from being an undesirable place to spend time, it has made public bathrooms somehow an attractive setting to spend an hour – so much so that it sold out both of its nights at the festival. This is a show with a bright future. I’ll be there at the next iteration ready to flush away my cash for a front row seat.
Public The Musical played at VAULT Festival which has now concluded. For more information see https://vaultfestival.com/events/public-the-musical/
Follow developments on the show at twitter.com/Public_Musical
Photos by Nick Brittain