Review by Daz Gale
If Southwark Playhouse are known for one thing it’s its tireless approach to providing a space for new musicals to debut, workshop and thrive with Operation Mincemeat being one of its most obvious examples. Now with two venues a short walk away from each other, there is double the opportunity for new musicals to shine. While newer space Elephant is currently home to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and will soon see the London return of new musical Ride, the existing space at Borough is playing home to new musical Then, Now & Next. With involvement from some of the most acclaimed names in musical theatre both in the cast and creative teams, there is plenty of reason to be excited about this intriguing new musical. But is now the right time for it?
Then, Now & Next begun its journey in 2013 as Christopher J Orton and Jon Robyns began throwing ideas around for a new show. It was Spring 2020 that saw the project resurrected as both found themselves with spare time due to the lockdown. After workshopping the project, it is finally ready to be seen by an audience in its first public outing,
The show tells the story of Alex (Alice Fearn) over the space of 20 years as it charts the two loves of her life – her fiancée Stephen (Joaquin Pedro Valdes) and Peter (Peter Hannah), the father of her child. Throughout the show, themes of how to move forward when you find yourself in a setback, be that in love, work or life in general. The title of the show refers to the various aspects in life as you look back at those moments that have shaped you, coping with the present and coming to terms with the uncertainty that is the future.
The writing by Christopher J Orton and Jon Robyns beautifully represents these themes and incorporates it into a show that becomes instantly accessible while not playing out in the most conventional way. Told in a non-linear approach, we see Alex flit back between various stages of her relationships with both partners – seeing how she met both Stephen and Peter, moments from both relationships and the circumstances that led to her meeting another partner. Always told with a great deal of authenticity and a lot of sensitivity, Then, Now & Next is a deeply human show which speaks of the fragility and uncertainty of life. While it is beautiful overall, the writing is also regularly laugh-out-loud funny with some fantastic one-liners and wit to be found in the dialogue, even managing to make a crass bit of toilet humour (one of my personal pet hates) hilarious.
Julie Athertons direction perfectly complements both Ortons and Ortons’ writing, incorporating visual gags and perfectly encapsulating the more emotional aspect of the story with impeccable choices. An interesting set design from Bob Sterrett goes for a clinical and plain look with an all white set, which becomes apparent later on as a recurring theme in Then, Now & Next is about longing for a bit more colour in your life – beautifully represented with a gift towards the shows climax.
Leading the cast as Alex, Alice Fearn once again proves what a force of nature she is when it comes to musical theatre. Whether she is demonstrating her immeasurable talents as a vocalist, holding back with some refreshingly quieter, sometimes even spoken songs, or channeling the emotional depth of her character, she consistently impresses. Moments of her time as Alex draw comparisons to her star turn as Captain Beverley Bass in Come From Away but this time with a character that is given more time to get audiences familiar with the intricacies of her nature and as such connect with her on a personal level.
Joaquin Pedro Valdes gives a sensational performance as Stephen. Utterly charming with a real warmth behind him, he brings an affinity to the character that easily allows us to understand why Alex fell in love with him. Blessing us with stunning vocals including an early standout with a song about turning 30, he fully understands his character, giving what may well be a career-best performance.
Also exceptional in the cast is Peter Hannah as the conveniently titled Peter. Completely charismatic as the character, he gives one of the most memorable and joyous performances of the show with his musical number ‘Distracted’. A wonder to witness, his performance here truly is magical. The cast are completed by Justin Brett and Tori-Allen Martin in a variety of supporting roles. Both make the most of a range of roles that are mostly one-scene-wonders but it’s Tori-Allen Martin who really steals the scene with her over-the-top, energetic and exaggerated performances, delivering a masterclass in comedy roles. Her turn as party animal Tara provides the greatest comic moment of the entire show which earned her her own applause mid-scene.
The last aspect of Then, Now & Next to talk about is the music. While the book itself is fantastically full of emotion, it’s the music that really elevates this to another level. Ortons and Robyns’ songs are incredibly crafted, feeling instantly familiar and of a phenomenally high standard. Witty lyrics and earworm melodies give a combination of songs that overall makes this feel like an instant classic. Performed to perfection by this stunning cast, musically this may be one of the best newer shows I have seen in quite a while.
Championing newer shows is something I strive to do on this website. Then, Now & Next is a project I’ve kept an eye on for a while, desperately hoping when I finally saw the full thing it would live up to my own high expectations. I can safely say it did that and more. A beautiful story with a delicate balance of grander and more intimate moments and a perfect mix of light and shade creates a stunningly crafted show. Superb writing, expert direction and an amazing cast are all elements that make Then, Now & Next so effortlessly enjoyable but its ability to connect with the audience and make them feel something in some of the more emotional moments of the show are what really makes it special. In the show, Alex comments how she hopes she can be more than just fine - this is something the show doesn't have to worry about as it is so much more than just fine. A truly wonderful show and one I’m sure has a long life ahead of it. I can’t wait to see what it does next.
Then, Now & Next plays at Southwark Playhouse Borough until 29th July. Tickets from southwarkplayhouse.co.uk
Photos by Pamela Raith