Saturday, 24 October 2020

REVIEW: Next Thing You Know at the Garden Theatre

“I want to be the main course”, the central sentiment of a group of friends in their late 20’s finding their way in the hubbub of New York life. This story comes in the form of the musical, “Next thing you know”, at Vauxhall’s Garden Theatre. With book by Ryan Cunningham and music and lyrics by Joshua Salzman the musical first ran to acclaimed success off-broadway in 2011. From the moment you arrive at The Eagle every measure is in place to ensure a safe, socially distanced experience. The theatre itself is outside at the back of the venue although you are well covered and heated with just the odd sound of a speeding motorbike or police siren to remind you that you’re in a garden area.  

The piece explores the lives of four friends in The Big Apple exploring their ambitions and regrets primarily in the setting of a New York dive bar. Endearingly explained before the performance started the audience was told that the director had specifically chosen 4 graduates of 2020 to give a ray of hope to students that have entered the performing world a year of unprecedented difficulty in the theatre world. This was a heartwarming way to start the performance and you sensed the audience were willing the actors to do well from the start.

Upon walking into the Garden Theatre you’re transported to a weathered bar in New York with a working bar providing drinks for the cast at various moments of the play. We’re introduced to the barmaid Waverley (Bessa Ewa), a dispirited actress who is seeking an unwilling career in law as a way of making ends meet. Waverley’s struggles also span to her heavy relationship with boyfriend of several years Darren (Nathan Shaw) She fears their relationship has fallen into the comfortable stage that she expects from her parents but not a couple approaching their 30’s. Ewa and Shaw portray this miscommunication with conviction, expressing the frustration from both angles.

Waverley and Darren’s best friends Lisa and Luke serve as the seemingly more easygoing characters although as the play continues we discover that under the surface they're just as insecure about their hopes and decisions. Oozing stage presence Amelia Atherton plays bar performer Lisa who is deciding that it’s time for a change as her main ambition has not been fulfilled, to find her soulmate in New York. Lisa works as a mentor of comfort to other characters but in a poignant moment of the show reveals that her confidence follows years of self-doubt about her sexuality.  

With an endearing confidence Callum Henderson plays charismatic cad Luke. From his privileged background to his Casanova luck with the ladies, Luke doesn’t seem to have a care in the world. As with the other characters the show unravels that under the surface there is more than meets the eye, being described by Lisa as an “Emotional werewolf” 

I never thought I would hear a song entitled “Morning after omelette” and yet it seemed a perfectly natural addition. Other songs offer a range of topics and themes affecting people going through a “Quarter-life crisis”. From quitting smoking to a wonderfully choreographed song about the grim realisation that hangovers are far worse when you reach your 30’s. At times it was hard to imagine the fresh-faced performers having to deal with these topics when they looked more like they were in the early stage of their 20’s rather than the later but saying that their strong performances easily let the audience overlook that. 

Subtle references to the Covid 19 pandemic gave the performance a current feeling whilst also not overtaking the story. From facemasks to hand gel, with even a subtle elbow rub here and there. There was comfort in seeing people in 2020 adhering to government guidelines whilst also showing that life can continue in normal ways with some show tunes thrown in to. The references kept things relevant whilst not eclipsing the escapism quality of enjoying a musical. 

Ultimately “Next thing you know” highlights the unpredictability of life whilst showing us that even if you’re not on the path you planned it doesn't mean that it’s the wrong path. A thoroughly enjoyable night of much-needed escapism that had me humming the title song the whole way home.

“Next Thing you Know” is running at The Garden Theatre until Saturday October 31st.  

Review by Myles Ryan

Rating: ★★★★

Price of Ticket: £20
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