Regulars to Southwark Playhouse will be no stranger to having a glass of wine pre-show, post show and even mid-show. So it feels fitting that the latest musical to premiere this is all about wine… sort of.
Set in LJ’s wine bar, Tasting Notes peeks into the lives of the bar owner, her staff and one of her customers over a seemingly normal 24 hours. What sets this apart from other musicals though is its unique narrative structure which replays the same day over and over again, each time through the eyes of one of the 6 main characters.
LJ is played by Nancy Zamit, best known for her roles in all of the Mischief Comedy roles, here trying her hand at a more serious role. She is seemingly the glue that holds it all together and opens the show with the story of her day in a captivating performance, showing her versatility as an actor and her beautiful singing voice. Sadly, while the other 5 characters see their stories overlap, she doesn’t have too much to do in the other 5 characters stories, which can be frustrating given you find yourself invested in her.
Charlie Ryall gives a great performance as Maggie though finds herself with less to do than the others, Stephen Hoo has one of the most intriguing parts to play as customer Joe whose day forms a key plot point in the narrative (without giving anything away) while Niall Ransome gives a nuanced performance in the relatively understated Oliver. Wendy Morgan is wonderful as Eszter while perhaps the standout goes to Sam Kipling who finds himself with the most varied story as George, which he performs with skill and ease.
Written by Richard Baker and Charlie Ryall, the narrative structure is a clever touch, particularly when it comes to the theme of perception. Tasting Notes asks the question of what we’re missing when we’re not looking and how others see the same events as us. These events are played out repeatedly but each time in a different way. Whether that is the difference between calm and panic in the same moment, or difficulties in understanding when English is not their first language. I would have liked to have seen even more differences played out and perhaps highlighted more, as this was one of the most interesting aspects of the show.
The music feels fitting for the wine bar setting - fairly chilled and almost jazzy in parts mixed in with more classic notes of musical theatre. While not all songs land with great effect, there are moments of genius, with duet ‘It Could Be You’ and the title number ‘Tasting Notes’ among the highlights.
The set design by Justin Williams is inspired with a striking looking set piece resembling LJ’s bar full of intricate and authentic detail. With fantastic direction by Shelley Williams, the cast have a hard job of repeating the same events with minor tweaks each time and with not much time to do it. With choreography from Will Peaco, the action on stage is always riveting to witness.
Tasting Notes is not without its faults though. Slightly too long and with some pacing stories, it can also be uneven at times with the 6 stories failing to carry the same weight as eachother. However, when it’s good, it’s very very good. The unique structure is reminiscent of Groundhog Day but with its own twist. Speaking of, there is also an unexpected twist to be found in the show which completely changes the narrative (You won’t get any spoilers from me though and you definitely won’t see it coming).
This is a new musical that bills itself as having legs, and it definitely does – though it needs to walk before it can run. New musicals aren’t going to be perfect first time but it is all about trial and error to see what works and what minor changes can be made to make it even better. With that in mind, Tasting Notes has a huge amount of potential. As a first taste, it is still a great show in itself. I’m excited to see how it progresses in the future to hopefully enjoy the complete thing.
Tasting Notes plays at Southwark Playhouse until August 27th. Tickets from https://www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/
Photos by Chris Marchant