Forgive me for taking the scenic route to starting this review, but this has been rather an extraordinary weekend, namely because it was such a deeply ordinary weekend. On Friday I performed a live theatre gig in Leicester (for the Attenborough Arts Centre, reportedly the first live theatre in Leicester since pre-COVID, and which if you’ll pardon the obnoxious self-promotion you can watch online from Thursday); on Saturday I attended my friend’s new play at the Nottingham Playhouse; by Sunday I was back in London to catch the matinee of Garden Theatre’s latest musical.
So ordinary. So normal. But right now normal is rare and precious, and that’s true too of theatre. Garden Theatre are by this point old hands at the ‘New Normal’ of theatre with their outdoor musical production of ‘Next Thing You Know’, which opened this weekend at the Eagle in Kennington, their third since the summer. It’s fitting then that the show revolves around four young people searching for moments that are rare and precious in a life that is achingly normal.
Set in a New York bar, four late-twentysomethings juggle love and career ambitions (and whiskies, and duvets, and omelettes, and hangovers) and try to figure out who they are and what they want from life. Though the musical was originally written in 2011, this production firmly but subtle relocates it to mid-Pandemic, the characters hand-sanitising and socially distancing through their wavering friendships and relationships. It feels a little clunky at first, but a gorgeously written scene where two characters decide to communicate entirely via computer voice programme while sitting right next to each other is elevated by the setting from merely funny to something more profound about how humans communicate and form connections with each other.
‘Next Thing You Know’ fits familiarly within the pantheon of the “young people trying to succeed in New York” genre. It reminded me strongly of Rent, Fame, and most of all the TV series Friends. Musician and recently out lesbian Lisa (wonderfully charismatic Amelia Atherton, who deserves a meatier role than she has here) is getting sick of waiting for ‘the One’ to fall into her lap; her best friend Waverly (a touchingly sincere Bessy Ewa) is an aspiring actress who hasn’t had an audition in six months an secretly loves her new law firm job; her ex-boyfriend Darren (Nathan Shaw, bringing nuanced to a character who narrowly avoids being a stereotype) is a nerdy writer pining for love; and lothario and “emotional werewolf” Luke (excellent all-rounder Callum Henderson) just wants to have fun.
All the individual elements are fine: the songs are solid (excellent harmonies, though the duvet-wrapped Hangover Song is best enjoyed as heavy satire, and misogynistic ‘The Way to Get a Girl’ feels like it comes from a completely different era), the retro choreography neatly refigured for the small space, and the dialogue manages to be both natural and funny. Yet something about the plot felt curiously inert. Theatre is defined by characters pursuing a goal or want, but these characters’ wants seem to be, “To figure out what I want.” Three of the characters are aspiring creatives yet don’t display much if any passion or even interest in their chosen art forms. Waverly in particular seems more enamoured with the idea of being an actress due to fear of what being an office stiff represents, than with acting itself. ‘Next Thing You Know’ is the anti-Fame, but that complexity and ambiguity, the feeling of being paralyzed by choices, ambivalent about the things you’re supposed to dream of, is both frustrating and relatable. This production was designed as a showcase for 2020 graduates and in this it succeeds admirably. The characters might be struggling to know what they want, but the talent and passion of the cast and musicians shines.
Next Thing You Know runs at the Garden Theatre at the Eagle Pub in Kennington until Saturday 31st October. http://gardentheatre.co.uk/next-production-next-thing-you-know/