Do musicals ever matter? Remains of the Day at #49 The Union

Remains of the Day

Why musicals and ideas don’t mix

Musicals really aren’t my thing. Although I have a soft spot for the songs and stories of those musicals I watched repetitively as a child I am not, for the most part, a believer.

To me, it seems a completely ridiculous idea to put musicals and theatre in the same category. I would argue that, in a nutshell, theatre (of the best variety) seeks to challenge its audience in some way: to make them think, to make them feel and to make them question. Although my instinctive dislike means that I am by no means an expert on the musical genre, I don’t think I know of many musicals that seek to challenge the grey matter of their audiences. Instead, musicals seem to confirm what their audiences already know – to confirm the people they are and the lives they are leading. The problem with the musical genre and with McTheatre (as Dan Rebellato terms it in Theatre & Globalization) in general is that it can often be uncomfortable – and not in a good way. If you as a theatregoer do not conform to what it seeks to confirm – i.e. if your outlook does not match the brash unthinking cheerfulness of it all – then there’s an odd sense of rejection and insecurity to be dealt with.

Last night I saw Remains of the Day at the Union Theatre (my review of which is published on Whatsonstage.com). The show was definitely one of the better musicals I have seen and was both interesting and tasteful. However, what puzzled me was why it needed to be a musical at all.

I’ve neither read Kazuo Ishiguro’s book nor seen the film of Remains of the Day. Perhaps I would have had a different experience if I was already more familiar with its story, but as it was I had to judge its merit as a stand alone show. I’d been told of the popularity of Ishiguro’s story and was able to identify some of its power in this new adaptation. Where I feel this adaptation lets itself down though, is in the over-emphasis of its musical elements. Although the music is both well written and performed, I was often confused about why it needed to be included. The show is not particularly long, and would really work better with fewer songs and more story. When the characters do break into song, it feels as though we do not really know them well enough to feel the intensity of the subject matter they are singing about.

Alan Loveless, the show’s writer and composer, is clearly a talented man. It seems though that, like many of us, he had a definite vision of what he wanted to write – in this case, a musical. I wonder what this show could be if the content was pushed higher up the list of priorities than its form. Perhaps it’s a lesson every writer has to learn at some point: to listen to the creative potential of an idea and not one’s own desire to put a tick next to a particular genre.

The Union Theatre

Back on track with my visits to new theatres, I was very impressed with what the Union has to offer. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it is a pocket-sized and infinitely more approachable version of Southwark Playhouse. The small studio venue, which feels something like a cellar, rumbles with the distant sound of trains overhead. This theatre is a den of curiosities: the small cafe and friendly bar, with their grotto-like charm, feel more like a secret antique shop. It’s a welcome enchantment away from the hubbub of Southwark, and manages to get the balance between scruffiness and style just right.

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