This review first appeared in British Theatre Guide
Sheep Soup’s The Leftovers is the first musical to be commissioned for performance at Curve’s 250+ seater Studio space and is performed as part of the venue’s Inside Out Festival 2017.
Over two years in development, The Leftovers is an examination of different responses to grief via “a musical in a naturalistic setting”. The team behind this project are graduates of Nottingham’s BAFTA award-winning Television Workshop which specialises in naturalistic performance and improvisation.
Set in a recording studio, five people gather, some know each other, some don’t, but they all knew Jodie at different points in their lives. Jodie has been dead for a year but they have gathered to record a tribute to her and honour her memory. Trouble is, Jodie didn’t seem like a particularly nice person which is fair enough, we don’t have to like characters, but as a central, unseen presence there needs to be something about her to make you care.
Fortunately for Yaz (Philippa Hogg), Jim (Ben Welch), Hayley (Sarah White), Angie (Wreh-asha Walton) and Russ (Tim Murphy), Jodie was a prolific documenter of her thoughts and, as the group delve into her papers, drawings and Facebook account, each of the characters attempts to resolve their feelings towards Jodie, and to each other.
And that’s it as far as plot is concerned. Unfortunately, the book of The Leftovers (Nic Harvey) is clichéd and lacks any real drama; naturalism has been taken too far in many instances with a narrative that includes too much of the mundane minutiae of life.
Conversely, Harvey and Rob Green’s original score is accomplished, beautifully sung and includes a variety of styles and moods. The paean to the ’90s is amusing and witty, and the lyrics throughout are clever. As meta-musical theatre, these elements work best as individuals apparently improvise the creation of a musical tribute.
Russ has most of the best lines and Murphy delivers them with a nice mix of sarcasm and surreality. Ben Welch has great comic timing and a stunning singing voice, as does Wreh-asha Walton; her solo numbers are soulful and delivered with impressive control and power.
One finds oneself longing to just hear the songs, a good thing in a musical, however, a musical also requires songs that drive the narrative forward and unfortunately, this is where the talented cast are let down. All good stories begin at a crucial point in key characters’ lives; we want to get behind them, share the impact of their decisions and desires and care about what happens to them. Why not start in the immediate aftermath of Jodie’s death, for example, and see for ourselves how the characters react and change over time?
The improv feel to this is good, however, it should be noted this is a professional production with Arts Council funding. Running 25 minutes over the stated time is not a good thing, and there appear to be no production images. Notwithstanding the creative side, this stuff also matters, especially if you are given an invaluable opportunity to perform in a leading theatre’s key space.
The programme sheet name-checks over 30 individuals and organisations who assisted with development of The Leftovers and I can’t help wondering if the lack of underlying narrative has been raised at any point—it does need addressing.
During the spoken elements of the show, there is a sense the audience is intruding on a private conversation, only it’s a conversation I don’t particularly want to be involved in. A shame, as the music is wonderful.
Image supplied by Curve