Review by Sam Waite
Throughout human history, regardless of our backgrounds, beliefs or alliances, offerings have been made to higher powers, likely to be discovered and analysed by future generations. In Sing, River, Nathaniel Jones explores memory’s lack of surety, as well as the complex relationships some could form with higher powers. Largely rewritten following an Oxford premiere earlier in the year, Love Song Productions have now brought Jones’ folk musical to London’s Hope Theatre.
Jones, the sole performer, plays a young person of indeterminate age and of mostly unknown identity. They come to this same river each Midsummer’s Eve to look at what offerings the river gods have seen fit to return to their banks. The piece’s handful of songs hint at darker and undertones, telling the tale of a young man ensnared into doing the bidding of those he worships in as payment for a past kindness.
The premise has definite promise, but the recent revisions do show signs of incompleteness. For a while, the story devolves into Jones picking up objects from around the space, talking about each one, and then putting it back - they're guessing at each one’s history like an architect imagining an ancient society, but the effect falls flat at times. There is a strong, emotionally weighty payoff to the confused structure, and to the almost immediate dismissal of the fourth wall – one is far more satisfying, but the purpose of both becomes much more apparent by the final notes.
The script finds its protagonist as amiable rather than likeable, and initially confusing in their time period with a bard-of-olde quality to the introduction and easy grabs for laughs with dogs at Ed Sheeran and Cards Against Humanity. Its songs are where Sing, River shows the most potential, folksy and with the tone of genuine folk songs telling tales from times long past. When they say the songs came from the river gods themselves, it's not difficult to believe them.
Katie Kirkpatrick, director and co-producer, does what she can to evoke a mystical night by the waterside in the black box space. With her guidance, Jones treads carefully near the audience but never quite into it, creating the idea that the curvature of the seatings is that of the river, and the items at the edge of the stage are washed up only just onto the banks. This does raise some questions around movement, whether they are exploring the banks or periodically noticing new things in the same section of the river, but the effect is more than enough to keep the play in metaphorical motion. Lighting design by Evie Cakebread helps sell the impending, and imposing, sunrise, but with the small space her room has little room to breathe and is easy to lose track of.
Nathaniel Jones is a wan, delicate presence in stage. At first they seems ethereal, as if they may be a fae creature inhabiting the woods, before eventually finding a frustration and misery within the character. More than capable of carrying emotional weight into a scene, either they or Kirkpatrick have made the curious choice to have certain key statements made into a microphone, which has the effect of filling their impact through volume and distortion rather than adding the desired heft to the delivery.
Faye James provides the music to accompany Jones’ lyrics, and the two are a match made in heaven. Had this been a sung through musical or a loose, mystic-themed song cycle this review could easily have been a rave. Affecting and authentic, her melodies calm the audience enough that the hints of darkness in the words can seep fully in, while the compositions alone are pleasant and welcoming, James' music also plays the role of the rivers gods themselves, used to signify messages only Jones’ unnamed hero can comprehend.
There are ripples of something captivating in Sing, River, and the show’s atmosphere is undeniable. With the strength of the music and performer, and the power that comes with the bold, foreboding final moments, there are signs of a truly unique and enjoyable piece of theatre – perhaps the re-writes were the best choice, and even more will bring out what is just below the surface.
Sing, River plays at the Hope Theatre until July 8th
For tickets and information visit https://www.thehopetheatre.com/productions/sing-river/
Listen to James and Jones’ music at https://on.soundcloud.com/AYqtRoiFa9LYeVKQ7
Photos by Phylly Hickish