A new theatre has opened in London... sort of. The venue previously known as The Actors Centre as had a rebrand and is now Seven Dials Playhouse. The inaugural production for this new venue is the European premiere of Steve.
Blurring the lines between immersive theatre and a more conventional layout, the playhouse is an intimate space where the cast perform to an audience seated on tables on-stage. Think of it like Cabaret but about £300 cheaper (There's even a reference to that other production at the shows welcome). There's even an on-stage bar! Just don't attempt to use it while the show is going on.
Written by Mark Gerrard, Steve is a play about life, love and loss. Focusing on a group of friends and the complexities of their various relationships with each other and the group as a whole. Brilliantly directed by Andrew Keates, Steve transitions gloriously from scene to scene as we see events unfold, attitudes get challenged and the fallout takes place. The set design on hand is exquisite. Designed by Lee Newby, a small and comparatively dull looking space becomes a bar, coffee shop, hospital and even a beach thanks to a brilliant use of video projections surrounding the stage.
The cast is led by David Ames as Steven whose life implodes at his birthday during the shows opening scene. The show sees him interact with the other cast members individually as a group – he remains the centre though, present in every scene. Ames is wonderful in the role, channelling anguish and the fear of approaching loss with great sensitivity and believability. Giving a spellbinding performance, he truly is the heart of the show.
Joe Aaron Reid makes a welcome return to the West End as Steven's husband Stephen (The second of FIVE characters whose names are a variation of Steve) who plays off Ames perfectly holding back in a subtle yet effective performance. Olivier award winning Jenna Russell is as incredible as ever as best friend and blogger Carrie. Though she has perhaps the toughest character arc in very few scenes, she does it with ease. The cast are completed by Giles Cooper as Brian, Michael Walters as Matt and Nico Conde as Esteban – all fabulous in their own right and showing remarkable chemistry with their fellow cast members.
The writing is what really elevates Steve to something quite special. To call it a love letter to musical theatre would be an understatement. It wears its tribute to the great Stephen Sondheim with pride, with musical director Ben Papworth gloriously playing some of his most well-loved and iconic numbers on the piano in the background. The nods go deeper than that with a group of friends shoehorning in as many musical theatre references and jokes as possible in quick succession was incredibly satisfying. While a script relying on knowledge of every musical theatre production over several decades to get the most out of it may appeal to a very niche audience, it was very much my brand – with parts of it so close to home, I thought they had been reading my conversations with stagey friends and created a verbatim play out of it at one point. Lines about Andrew Lloyd Webber and Evita in particular had me howling, though perhaps I could have done without a surprising dig at the phenomenal Kristin Chenoweth.
You may need to be warned, the dialogue can get fairly crude at times. A text conversation being projected perhaps isn’t one for the easily offended, and if you’re not a fan of certain four letter words, you’re not going to like this. However, these form an integral part of the story and lead to a very natural conversational script. The fact this is all so relatable is what makes Steve such a resounding success. The intimate, almost immersive feel did give the illusion we were part of the group and led to us falling in love with these characters.
The themes of life moving on and leading to loss does make tough viewing at times, particularly for anyone who has ever been there themselves, but this is done to brilliant effect, with Jenna Russell in particular giving a nuanced performance as David Ames struggled to come to terms with the inevitable. The show also talks about the challenges of growing older as a gay man when a nice meal out is more appealing than a night dancing on a podium like ye olden days (Again, did I write this?). Steve also hopes to challenge attitudes towards different kinds of relationships be it monogamous, polygamous or other. It feels very ground-breaking in this approach – current and urgent.
Steve was a surprisingly sensational night at the theatre for me. A fabulous setting with an incredible cast performing in such close proximity felt incredibly special. Fans of theatre will love all the little nods littered throughout the show, while those in the LGBTQ+ community will surely feel familiar with some of the moments and conversations at hand. Ultimately, this is a show with a lot of potential. If theatre at its best can remind you of the fragility and importance of life itself, this is a show that truly makes you appreciate being alive.
Steve plays at the Seven Dials Playhouse until March 19th. Tickets from https://www.sevendialsplayhouse.co.uk/shows/steve
Photos by The Other Richard