Among the seemingly quiet streets of Greenwich Village, the buzz of London’s theatre mania keeps roaring onstage with the opening of this new musical dealing with the struggles of everyday life through the narration of an exceptional one. Guillermo Nazara reviews this original British show, to let us know what’s to expect in this roller-coasting quest for self-respect.
There’s something about major divas falling into the pit of demise that’s always fascinated writers – and audiences, for all it matters. From real giants like Maria Callas to made-up icons like Norma Desmond (for all those wondering, the delusional crone from Sunset Boulevard), fiction is packed with stories of artists building an empire of fantasy and adulation only to be shattered into a thousand pieces of broken dreams. Sometimes naïvity, sometimes an unrestraint blinding ego, the reasons and evolution of their journey into oblivion usually poses an interesting opportunity for creators – as it’s their moment to dive into the most forgotten layer of a celebrity (at least until recently): the fact that they live as similar reality as all humans do.
This week, the Greeenwich Theatre premiered Are You As Nervous As I Am?, a piece dealing with the rise and decline of make-believe star Peggy Starr (no pun intended). A small towner from Wales with a personal distinctive gift for “bringing happiness to others” through her compelling singing voice, the story presents several themes masqueraded by the classic tale of that girl being at the right place at the perfect time only to discover the life she once thought as happiness was a nightmare covered in reverie veils. Deception, abuse, interest and the frail strenght of the mind to cope with all of it, the plot offers a stimulating scenario for a viewer to watch. In regards to that, the book is, by far, the best at doing such job, as its truthful well-paced and occasionally witty dialogues (credit to Simon Spencer) allow the piece (especially during the first act) to have some beat of its own.
Spanning through several decades during the 20th Century (in particular, the 50s, 60s and 70s being the core of the storyline), its original score, penned by composer Leighton James House, features a mixture of contemporary style intertwined with an old-fashioned revue-esque essence. That’s no surprise, nonetheless, as most of the numbers deal with the characters actually performing a musical number within the story, instead of using them as a mechanism to channel their emotions or making the plot advance. That also, however, raises an interesting question: are we really seeing a musical or a play with music? It’s true that, at some other times, the songs , but it’s no less accurate that there are so many excerpts where, as a watcher, you’d wish the actors sang – something that would really benefit the piece’s overall rythm and, ultimately, its appeal.
Directed by Phoebe Barran, the other great strength of this production is the stage design. Conceived by Kevin Jenkins, the use of a diagonal wooden panel-studded set effectively transports us through the different ambiances, as its plain though authentic mid-century look serves as a multi-purpose room able to house either a home, a bar or a recording studio. With a bulb-filled boxed-inning proscenium, accompanied by a frequently correct lighting design, the latter developed by Mike Robertson, the “gala” scenes are probably the best resolved moments, as they manage to immerse the audience into the same buzzing excitement the character is experiencing while given the spotlight.
Standing on that main spotlight is leading actress Katie Elin-Salt, playing the innocent ingenue Peggy Starr. A decent singer and a much better actress, her charisma onstage is undeniably proven by her ability to make Peggy not only sympathetic, but genuinely loveable. Opposite to her, Bill Ward, in the role of the insidious songwriter Bob, gives most certainly the shiniest performance in this production, giving elegance and flair to a character that, though hateful, keeps a level of attractiveness thanks to his treatment to the source material. On the other hand, Emma Thornet, playing the part of Janet (Peggy’s sister), sadly fails to keep up with that standard, since, though convincing enough in her acting, her pitch is usually out when doing vocal harmonies.
Are You As Nervous As I Am? is, in many forms, a fair instance of team achievement, as creatives and cast’s contributions help to save the piece at different levels. Though still in need of improvement regarding its structure and motifs (too many things told and only the surface of its thems being scratched through the songs and storytelling), still has the potential to become something with the ability to stand out in some way. If these notes are taken into account, we may then be witnessing something worth of not only a nice run in the Off district, but also a respectable stay at the centre of London’s theatreland.
Are You As Nervous As I Am? plays at the Greenwich Theatre until 23 October. Tickets are available on the following link.